By Dr. Marie Gould Harper
Program Director, Management at American Public University
Because I consider myself a savvy shopper who is willing to give detailed feedback about my experience, my interest was piqued when I saw a recent article in Business Insider. This article described how Walmart plans to develop facial recognition technology to detect frustrated and unhappy shoppers.
How Will Walmart Recognize Unhappy Shoppers?
According to the article, video cameras at store checkout lines will monitor customers’ facial expressions and movements to identify their levels of dissatisfaction. If the system detects an unhappy customer, a Walmart employee receives a signal and goes to the checkout line to resolve the issue. The goal is to use technology to identify and resolve customer service issues before customers complain. Consider it a customer retention plan.
Walmart is not new to testing facial recognition technology. In 2015, Walmart tested this technology to detect shoplifters and prevent theft. However, the program proved unsuccessful and ineffective, and it was discontinued.
What about Customer Privacy Issues?
Although casinos have used facial recognition software for years, the practice is controversial. For example, Fortune magazine reports that in Illinois, “consumers filed class action suits against Facebook and photo-service Shutterfly for violating a state law related to biometrics. In European countries and Canada, automated photo tagging features are unavailable because regulators are uneasy about their privacy implications.”
Unfortunately, there is no consensus on this issue. Numerous interested parties continue to grapple with what types of policies and regulations should be put into place to monitor the use of facial recognition software. At the heart of the dispute is the question whether shoppers need to be notified of the use of facial recognition and if they can somehow opt out.
How Well Can This Technology Work?
While the legal ramifications are debated, I question how effective using facial recognition software can be and if the desired results are easily achievable.
For example, if a distracted and frustrated shopper went into a Walmart store, would the shopping experience be unpleasant? Can the software specifically recognize the frustration on a shopper’s face as the result of the shopping experience versus an external factor?
Also, how will a store intervene if the problem is customer service? I was in a department store that had a long line at the customer service desk.
Shoppers were angry because the store recently had introduced a service that allowed in-store customers to place online orders. Unfortunately, the customers who wanted to place online orders were in the same line as customers purchasing items in the store.
One customer wanted to place an online order of 20 items, but there were problems handling the transaction. As a result, the customer service representative had to spend approximately 20 to 30 minutes with that customer while the line grew longer.
In this scenario, I think the solution would be to change the practice of online purchasing in the store. If the process were properly vetted by management, the problem would have been addressed and resolved before going live. You wouldn’t need to see a customer’s face to realize that something was wrong.
Biometric Facial Recognition Technology Issues Would Need to Be Resolved before Use
The bugs in biometric facial recognition need to be worked out before installing such systems in stores. Without beta testing, Walmart might very well experience the same results it experienced when it attempted to use the software to curtail theft. I’m not sure this practice is the most effective way to get the desired results.
About the Author
Dr. Marie Gould Harper is the Program Director of Management at American Public University. She holds an undergraduate degree in psychology from Wellesley College, a master’s degree in instructional systems from Pennsylvania State University and a doctorate in business from Capella University. She is a progressive coach, facilitator, writer, strategist and human resources/organizational development professional with more than 30 years of leadership, project management, and administrative experience. Dr. Gould Harper has worked in both corporate and academic environments.
Dr. Gould Harper is an innovative thinker and strong leader, manifesting people skills, a methodical approach to problems, organizational vision and ability to inspire followers. She is committed to continuous improvement in organizational effectiveness and human capital development, customer service and the development of future leaders.