The All-Seeing Ceiling

David Kerrigan

How retailers are embracing cameras from ceiling to floor

On my first visit to a checkout-free Amazon Go store, I was pleasantly surprised at how little it felt like I was being watched. The high tech cameras in the ceiling were pretty unobtrusive, painted black to blend in. I can’t say the same for the new Walmart Intelligent Retail Laboratory in Long Island, just outside New York. Although Amazon Go is a finished concept that’s now live in 10 locations and the Walmart site is clearly a laboratory for testing ideas, it seems unthinkable that in an era of increased consumer awareness, there’s going to be widespread acceptance of 40 cameras per aisle obviously watching over us.

An overhead row of cameras at Walmart Intelligent Retail Laboratory Store, Levittown, New York

Yet when I visited the Walmart lab, none of the local shoppers seemed bothered by the overhead surveillance — most of us are too focused on shopping to ever look up. For Walmart, the cameras are intended not to watch the customers but the shelves (checking for stock-outs) and the aisles (looking for spills) so they can alert staff to situations needing attention more quickly. As long as consumers are reassured that facial recognition isn’t being used, I suspect they won’t object to cameras watching the store and products rather than them as individuals, but I do expect Walmart to refine the appearance of the cameras before using them more widely.

That raises a rather important question about the appearance of cameras — is there potentially a different consumer reaction when the cameras are clearly visible rather than integrated to the point of being non-obvious?

Further down from the ceiling, in a Kroger-group store in Redmond, Washington, where they are also testing digital shelf-edge displays, if you look very closely at the end of each aisle, you might be able to see a camera watching shoppers.

Notice the camera under the Q logo?

Similarly, a Walgreens in downtown Manhattan is one of several locations testing cooler cabinets with a camera in the door that can analyse customers’ movements.

Can you spot the camera on the freezer door ? (just above the handle)

Perhaps more acceptable in terms of privacy, several retailers have implemented floor-level cameras, ingeniously tracking shoes to infer gender, as well as monitor paths through the store and customer dwell time in particular locations.

A shoe-tracking camera from Hoxton Analytics

Between Amazon Go, Walmart’s experiments, Walgreen’s Coolers, Kroger’s cameras and assorted shoe tracking cameras, our future shopping trips may see us under even more surveillance than we are when shopping online. Concerns about web site cookies may soon be replaced by concerns that your supermarket is watching you.

David Kerrigan

Written by

Thoughts about technology and society. Author of three books: details at https://david-kerrigan.com

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