Welcome to the shop of the future

This unassuming convenience store in Okegawa, Japan, is one of the most technologically advanced concept shops in the world. It's part of a growing trend for 'smart shops' around the world - shops that make it their mission to know as much about their customers as possible. 

Developed by Panasonic, the Experimental Store, or Ex-Store, is also highly energy efficient, and equipped with its own eco-friendly emergency power unit.

Chief among the new technologies on show at the Ex-Store is a CCTV system that uses facial recognition software to recognise returning customers. The camera network covers every inch of the shop, and is capable of matching a face to its database within seconds.

The technology is similar to that used in Tesco's controversial in-store advertising screens, which aim to recognise customers' attributes from their facial features and offer appropriate adverts.

 

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Originally intended purely as a security function, the software also offers marketing opportunities. It can log whether a customer makes a purchase or leaves empty-handed, and can be linked directly to the till to match each customer to his or her purchases.

The HD cameras also keep a record of customers' gender, age and time of visit. Panasonic claims that its facial recognition algorithms are accurate to plus or minus five years.

 

Other areas of the shop have been modernised, in ways that you might not even notice, to 'streamline the experience' of a visit.

The Ex-Store uses LED lighting throughout, which is programmed to automatically change colour to suit the time of day and expected mood of its customers. Early in the morning the lights are bright blue-white 'to wake people up' as they pop in for an early snack. Later they will soften, turning yellow and pale orange as the day progresses and people are more likely to spend time browsing. It can also be adjusted on an hourly basis to prioritise certain products.

An ambient light sensor controls the brightness of the lighting. Each light is also independently capable of sensing movement. Using LED lights also halves the energy consumption, compared with incandescent or flourescent bulbs.

Further energy savings are made by installing efficient refrigerators and air conditioning units. The store is fitted with solar panels and a battery to store the energy they generate. By gathering energy in the morning, the battery can power the store during the middle of the day, when power from the national grid is most expensive.

 

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Advances in controlling the air flow and insulation mean the shop can offer open-fronted refrigerator units without any loss of energy or heat.

The battery also acts as an emergency backup in case of emergency. Over three years, the shop is estimated to save 40% of the energy cost of a similar convenience store.

Currently, this shop is only used by Panasonic employees. But the various technologies used are being used in other shops across Japan. And they're not the only ones engaged in lacing a simple shopping trip with technology.

Several American chains have been taking their data-gathering one step further - using a practice known as 'internal positioning' to keep track of shoppers as they move around the store.

The most common systems use CCTV, but others have been known to use ultrasound waves and magnetic fields to track people. The systems can trace people's route through the shop, and time how long you spend in various areas.

Stores have also been using wi-fi to trace their customers, picking up on signals emitted by people's smartphones. Triangulation of the wi-fi signal - which doesn't require customers to log in to a particular wi-fi network - can enable precise tracking.

 

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One US company adopting this technology is Forest City enterprises, which runs shopping centres across the country. In an interview with Technology Review, Stephanie Shriver-Engdahl, Forest City’s president of digital strategy, says the company wants to know, “Do they get one soda, hop in the car, and leave? Or are they staying longer?” In the future, foot-traffic data could be used to set lease prices, she added.

It's not all one-way traffic, however. US clothing retailer Nordstrom recently attracted an outcry when it was revealed that the company's shops were using software developed by Euclid Analytics to gather unique identifiers known as MAC codes from people's phones. The codes can be used to build up a profile of regular shoppers, and match them to their purchases. Despite a warning at the front of the shop, several customers complained that it invaded their privacy, and the company dropped the programme.



 

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