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The smart ways of a shop dummy

London, Nov. 25: She may be locked frozen in a rigid pose, radiating a slightly synthetic pallor. But that doesn’t mean that the mannequin isn’t watching you.

An Italian company has begun producing a shop dummy that not only sports the latest fashion, but observes customers and dutifully reports back to its masters what it sees. It may sound like science fiction, but the manufacturers say that they have already received orders from major retailers.

The mannequins have tiny cameras lodged in their pupils, attached to facial recognition software that can determine for how long shoppers linger, as well as key information including their age, gender and ethnicity.

It is part of a new arsenal of sophisticated tools that stores are using to keep tabs on oblivious customers as they go about their shopping.

Almax Technologies, the Italian company behind the Eye See Mannequin, which was developed at a Milanese engineering university, insists that privacy concerns are overplayed.

Max Catanese, chief executive of Almax, said: “This product allows you to “observe” who is attracted by your windows and reveals important details about your customers, such as age range, gender, ethnicity and time spent.”

He added that it operated “in total respect of privacy”, using “a sophisticated mix of hardware and software technology that processes data without the aid of a computer and without having to record and transmit sensitive information, images or biometric data”.

The company claims that the cameras in one test store picked up on a daily influx of Asian customers at 5pm at a particular entrance. It transpired that a tourist coach was making a regular visit. The store manager duly placed Asian shop staff in that section of the store and saw a dramatic increase in sales.

But the new generation of “robo-mannequins” are still prompting concerns. Readers of technology websites excitedly compared the technology with the science-fiction film Minority Report, which includes shops using retina-scanning technology to customise their offers.

But even regular closed-circuit television cameras are now being used to spy on customers in more ways than one. As stores switch from analogue cameras to digital ones, they are installing software that helps them to decipher how customers are shopping in their stores. Shop managers hope that the intelligence gleaned will help them to improve store layouts and to work out why some products sell badly.

Morrisons, Britain’s fourth-largest supermarket, is installing an automated queue management system in all its stores. The technology uses a sensor embedded in the ceiling above the entrance to the supermarket, which can determine when a customer enters, whether they have a basket or a trolley and whether they are accompanied.

Based on this information it then forecasts how long their “shopping journey” will take and transmits instructions to a handheld device on how many tills ought to be staffed.

 
 
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