Retailers install shopper-tracking mannequins

News by Tim Ring

"Creepy" innovation raises privacy fears as it sends electronic beacons out to consumers passing by stores and helps them buy.

In a world-first, four British retailers have installed mannequins in their stores which have electronic beacons implanted in them that can track shoppers and gather their personal data.

The stores – House of Fraser in Aberdeen, Jaeger in London's Regent Street, Hawes and Curtis in Jermyn Street, and Bentalls in Kingston-upon-Thames - are trialling the mannequins, supplied by technology and design company Iconeme, which link directly with the consumer's iOS or Android mobile phone.

Via a secure web portal, the mannequins beacon out to any shopper in the store or passing by within 50 metres, to give them details about the clothes and accessories they are wearing and how to order them - but only if the shopper opts-in to the service.

In return, the consumer is asked for their age, gender and clothes size. They can optionally give their name and email address, and are encouraged to share the app with friends. The device also collects information on their location, what outfit was viewed and whether a purchase was made online.

London-based Iconeme then uses this data to provide analytic reports to the retailer. The app also sends out retail offers and news.

A spokesperson for Iconeme told “This is the first time that beacon technology has been used in store mannequins anywhere in the world, and it's a two-way conversation between the customer and the retailer.”

But the innovation has raised concerns about ‘mission creep' in terms of the information people are asked for, and about consumers being careless with their personal data and the app's privacy settings.

Emma Carr, acting director of the privacy campaigning group Big Brother Watch, told SC by email: 'Putting beacon devices in a mannequin is nothing short of creepy. The use of this surveillance technology by shops, in order to provide a personalised service, seems totally disproportionate.

“This is another example of how the public are increasingly being monitored by retailers. Profit trumps privacy yet again. It is not only essential that customers are fully informed that they are being monitored, but that they also have real choice of service and on what terms it is offered.”

Iconeme's spokesperson insisted shoppers can choose what personal details they make available via their own privacy settings, telling SC: “It's all opt-in. To receive the information and connect to the mannequin, you will have downloaded an app onto your phone. So the mannequins cannot interact with your phone if you haven't made a conscious decision to download the icon and the app.

“The app makes it really clear what information it's asking of customers and it won't try to hide anything.”

Iconeme co-founder Jonathan Berlin added: “We have made all endeavours to be transparent about data capture and work strictly within the guidelines laid down by Apple.

“When registering for the app, the user has the option to give full personal details or not, so the only information that is shared with the retailer is what the user gives, allowing them to be anonymous if this is their wish.”

Iconeme was launched last year by Jonathan Berlin and fellow entrepreneur Adrian Coe. It has offices in the UK and US.

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