London: Next time you look in a shop window, beware, those mannequins may be checking you out as well.
Some stores are using cameras secretly hidden inside the dummies to monitor customers’ buying habits.
Using facial recognition software, they profile the age, race and gender of passing shoppers so retailers can develop more effective marketing strategies.
The maker plans to update its technology to let the mannequins listen in on what customers are saying about the clothes on display.
The move has been criticised as ‘creepy’ by privacy campaigners, who pointed out that the surveillance is covert, and takes place without shoppers’ permission.
Retail guru Mary ‘Queen of Shops’ Portas tweeted: ‘Big Brother is watching. New technology lets stores use mannequins to monitor us, a scary thought, no?’
The mannequins, called EyeSee, are manufactured by Italian firm Almax and sell for £3,200 each. A secret camera inside the figure’s head connects to software that builds up statistical information on passers-by.
On its website, Almax boasts: “From now on the mannequins will not only display your collections and encourage the consumer to enter the store. This product will do much more. It would make it possible to ‘observe’ who is attracted by your windows and reveal important details about your customers: age range; gender; race; number of people and time spent.”
On sale since December last year, the mannequins are in use in the US and three European countries, according to Almax chief executive Max Catanese. He refused to disclose which retailers had purchased them or whether they are in use in the UK.
He said “a few dozen” are currently being used worldwide by five companies. Almax claims the mannequins allow stores to improve customer service. One shop adjusted its window display after it found men spent more than women in the first two days of a sale.
Another placed Chinese-speaking staff by a particular door after it found a third of visitors using that door after 4pm were Asian.
Catanese insisted the shop dummies do not breach customers’ privacy, adding: “Let’s say I pass in front of the mannequin. Nobody will know that ‘Max Catanese’ passed in front of it. The retailer will have the information that a male adult Caucasian passed in front of the mannequin at 6.25pm and spent three minutes in front of it. No private data or image is collected.”
Catanese added that his technology was less intrusive than CCTV security cameras.
But Emma Carr, deputy director of campaign group Big Brother Watch, said: “Keeping cameras hidden in a mannequin is nothing short of creepy. The use of covert surveillance technology by shops, in order to provide a personalised service, seems totally disproportionate. The fact that the cameras are hidden suggests that shops are fully aware that many customers would object to this kind of monitoring.
“It is not only essential that customers are fully informed that they are being watched, but that they also have real choice of service and on what terms it is offered.
“Without this transparency, shops cannot be completely sure that their customers even want this level of personalised service.
“This is another example of how the public are increasingly being monitored by retailers without ever being asked for their permission. Profit trumps privacy yet again.”