Customer stalking, coming soon to a store near you

By Carmel DeAmicis , written on August 23, 2013

From The News Desk

Synqera's loyalty generator, which gives customers customized coupons and information when they enter the store.

I'm not so sure that comparing your technology to a scene from "Minority Report" is a good thing. But no one told the founders of Synqera, a Russian software that lets brick and mortar shops target customers with personalized ads and offerings in store.

With Synqera, consumers check in at the front door by swiping their rewards card in a machine called a loyalty generator, which prints out customized coupons, food recipes, store maps, or other items. Then as the person shops, they pass digital screens called simplates which can tell the shoppers' age, gender, and mood. The simplate triggers demographic ads targeted at the specific shopper nearest to it. Weird.

Screen Shot 2013-08-23 at 4.40.21 PM Synqera's simplate device, which senses shoppers' age, gender, and mood through a webcam and then delivers tailored ads

Whether or not privacy critics like it, the Synqera technology is the future of retail shopping. It's part of a big trend now in companies stalking their customers' in-store activity, as covered by The New York Times last month. E-commerce platforms like Amazon have tons of data on who visits their site when, what they buy, and where they go next online. Brick-and-mortar shops want in on the action so they can tailor the store layout, product displays, and special offers to customer behavior.

If you live in Russia, you may very well come across a Synqera simplate or loyalty generator if you shop at the retail chainĀ Ulybka Radugi. That's where the technology is being pilot tested, and soon Synqera will announce the results of the test and enter into negotiations with other retailers. Synqera is looking for a US-based sales executive to tap the worldwide market, so it may be sooner rather than later that we see the technology in the States.

Demonstrating his product on Google Hangouts, founder Filipp Shubin likened the Synqera technology to that moment in "Minority Report," where Tom Cruise enters The Gap and gets greeted by a hologram who scans his retinas and knows what he purchased last time he was there. It's a dubious Big Brother description. But hey, who doesn't like a cheerful hologram that knows your shopping history and is happy to see you?

Customized coupons like those offered by Synqera are cool, but it remains to be seen whether customers are comfortable with what it takes to get them. Having your movements and emotions tracked in person at a store feels a lot creepier than the invisible cookies collecting your data online. Nordstrom's learned this the hard way when it started following its customers' movements through their smart phone WiFi connections. The store put up signs letting people know, and Nordstrom got enough complaints to close the program soon after launching it.

Despite Nordstrom's struggles, the in-person customer tracking market is alive and thriving. Synqera is the latest product in a big range of companies that boast about "[a]nalyzing more than 20 million shoppers a month across dozens of retail chains." RetailNext and Brickstream use video and smartphone WiFi to see how long people spend in each section of a store. Nomi tracks customers through their mobile's signals to see whether they'reĀ repeat or new. RealEyes offers a Synqera-like emotion sensing technology, which can tell how people feel when they watch an ad on a digital screen in a store. The list goes on.

Despite the privacy concerns, this technology isn't going away anytime soon. For retailers the products are a boon. There's a reason why Amazon's "Customers who bought this item also bought..." feature is so popular. Advertising 101: Ads work better when they suit the people they're targeted to. And customers who aren't too creeped out by the stalk factor might appreciate the personalized coupons or product suggestions. Give it a decade and The Gap scene from the "Minority Report" may be real life, not sci-fi.