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Retailers are watching … with more technology to figure out who you are and how you shop

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An illustration of heat-mapping. (Click to enlarge.)

The act of walking into a store, browsing among the racks and shelves and paying for your purchase hasn’t changed very much since you were a kid – or even since I was a kid.

There may be digital signage where once there were printed graphics. And there may be automated systems where once there were cash registers. But mostly, buying that new sweater or package of golf balls or loaf of bread has not changed very much in decades.

On the surface.

Below the surface, retailers have never stopped trying to figure out what makes you tick. In the old days, they simply assumed if sales were good, you were satisfied. If sales weren’t good, they’d try to find out a little bit more by asking you to fill out a customer satisfaction form, to be part of a focus group or to participate in a post-shopping interview.

Very low-tech. And not particularly revealing.

One reason is the weakness of the shopper interview. Ask most people why they did something 20 minutes earlier and they’re unlikely to be able to tell you. Researchers say people – whether in one-on-one interviews or focus groups – will give answers they think the questioner wants to hear; answers they think are the “right” answers; or answers they think will make them seem smarter.

But we’re in an age of technology. And everyone – even those sleepy old slow-to-change retailers – is climbing on board.

See, they know those “Millennials” among you (now between 19 and 31 years old) are vastly different than the “Gen Xers” (who are now anywhere from 32 to 47). Your experiences, values and tastes are quite separate, one group growing up with and shaped by oil crises and AIDS, the next by a terrorist attack that was seen live on television and the worst economic recession in 80 years.

And that doesn’t even account for the “baby boomers” – the youngest of whom is now 46 years old – who grew up with a booming economy and a mass culture that accommodated their consumer desires, from Howdy Doody to Elvis Presley to Princess Leia to mergers and acquisitions.

But there are several leaps between knowing you’re different and figuring out how that influences how you shop. So here’s what the smart retailers are doing. (And, by the way, much of this research is driven by the consumer brand manufacturers, who have always been more proactive in analyzing the market than the retailers themselves have been.)

• Eye-tracking. Resist your tendency to think of the eye-scanning in Steven Spielberg’s mall of the future from “Minority Report.” (“Hello, Mr. Yakamoto, welcome back to The Gap. How’d those assorted tank tops work out for you?”) But this technology is almost as cool. Shoppers wearing special glasses fitted with sensors are asked to do their normal shopping. The sensors are able to follow where their eyes go and where their vision lingers.

What signage do they look at? What package color or piece of graphics holds their attention? What do they look at first on the shelf or fixture? How long does their gaze fix there? Or how quickly do they turn away?

 Heat-mapping. A complementary methodology to eye-tracking measures not only where shoppers look but also where their vision lingers. It also aggregates the vision habits of all the participating shoppers, providing color spots that tell what gets the most viewing from all the participants in the research.

• Time motion studies. Surveillance video cameras record where people go in the store, where they tend to stop and browse, which aisles they go down and which they do not.

• Virtual labs. Digital versions of actual retail spaces allow test shoppers to sit at a computer screen or in front of a giant movie-size screen and virtually “shop” the store. With special software programs, researchers can project high-resolution, 3-D images of aisles and shelves with actual product packaging onto screens so large that participants feel they’re actually in the store. “We can render any retail space in virtual mode, like a gamer running through cities chasing monsters,” Yelena Idelchik, U.S. shopper marketing manager for Reckitt Benckiser, told me.

Who’s Reckitt Benckiser? It’s a British pharmaceutical company. You probably know it better as the company that brings you Clearasil, Mucinex, Glass Plus, Woolite and hundreds of household and personal care products.

 Record tracking. You probably think Kroger’s just the kindest store for giving you money off on certain items when you swipe your Kroger card. You think they’re saying, “We’re so grateful for your support, here’s a dollar off your yogurt.” Well, yes, they are. But they’re also learning things about you. Every time you swipe that Kroger loyalty card, they know a little bit more about when you shop, what you buy, which brands you like, how much you spend, which coupons you use. Armed with that, they can tailor certain offers just for you.

Which is good for you. But also good for them if you keep going there instead of to Walmart, Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s.

So the next time you’re out shopping, know that you’re being watched, tested and evaluated. It’s a brave new world. Everything’s different.

Well, not everything. Technology still won’t prevent that salesperson from telling you, “Sorry, honey, I’m going on my break” as you approach her counter.

They haven’t figured that out yet.

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