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Facial recognition: Big Brother or ultimate convenience?

Facial recognition

As controversial facial recognition technology develops and becomes more mainstream, Drapers explores its place in the fashion industry. 

The use of facial recognition is creating a dilemma for retailers, as they are forced to weigh up the cost of convenience against customer privacy.

The European Commission revealed earlier this month that it is considering a five-year ban on facial recognition in public areas, after several security surveillance schemes led to concerns surrounding privacy, safety and legislation. 

In September 2019 the software was scrapped across London’s King’s Cross Central development, which is home to Sweaty Betty, & Other Stories and Nike, because it involved tracking individuals without their consent.

Meanwhile, in 2018 Intu Trafford Centre in Manchester was pressured to axe a facial recognition technology trial after the Surveillance Camera Commissioner stated that monitoring millions of innocent people was inappropriate. 

Intu Trafford Centre axed facial recognition technology after a ruling by the Surveillance Camera Commissioner

Intu Trafford Centre axed facial recognition technology after a ruling by the Surveillance Camera Commissioner

Despite this, the Metropolitan Police Service announced on 24 January that it will use live facial recognition cameras in various locations across London, to help tackle serious crime in the capital. 

We will have – or already do have – the situation whereby your face is the next computer cookie

Erica Vilkauls, former CEO of LK Bennett

The same technology is already widely used among retailers in the UK, asserts FindFace, a face-recognition technology developed by the Russian company NtechLab. It claims more than 59% of British fashion retailers are using facial biometrics, however Drapers has not found any retailers admitting to using the technology. 

Several UK supermarkets, including Asda and Tesco, were reportedly set to roll out the technology at self-service checkouts by the end of last year, as part of a pilot scheme. However, both chains confirmed the software was not implemented. 

Alipay – the financial arm of ecommerce giant Alibaba – has been leading the charge in China with its “Smile-to-Pay” devices in 100 cities. Around 118 million people signed up for facial recognition payments across China in 2019, compared with 61 million in 2018, Iimedia Research reports. The research consultancy expects the number of users to exceed 760 million by 2022 – around half of the country’s population.

As its use becomes more widespread, several retail experts have expressed concerns that the “intrusive” technology could have damaging effects on the industry. 

Facial recognition applications

Facial recognition – the process of identifying or verifying the identity of a person using their face – captures, analyses, and compares biometric patterns based on a person’s facial details. It has four main applications in retail:

  • Anti-shoplifting
  • Automated check-out
  • Customer service
  • Customer journey tracking

“Facial recognition for anti-shoplifting is used without customer permission and is the most controversial,” says retail analyst Mark Pilkington.

“There is a broader debate about whether the use of this technology by the police is a contravention of civil liberties, but from a retailer point of view, it is a bad idea at this stage, for purely practical reasons – namely that it is not yet accurate enough to avoid a high number of false positives.”

It’s not an alien technology to consumers – many of us use it several times a day to unlock our phones and make mobile payments

Ivan Mazour, CEO and founder of artificial intelligence-powered customer marketing platform for retailers Ometria

Several retailers agree that facial recognition – across all four uses – has no viable place in the sector just yet, as it presents too many privacy and data concerns.

“The new vision for facial recognition in retail is that, as you walk around town or anywhere else, stores that share data with one another will be able to follow you on foot because your face will be associated with their businesses,” says Erica Vilkauls, former CEO of LK Bennett.

Facial recognition technology is already widely used in phones

Facial recognition technology is already widely used in phones

“To me this presents some very disturbing potential privacy scenarios. If this take-up continues [to expand into UK fashion retailers] at the speed it is currently, before the debate is truly had and regulations are put in place, we will have – or already do have – the situation whereby your face is the next computer cookie.”

Fergus Patterson, managing director of northern Europe at Gant, agrees: “Facial recognition is still in its infancy as a secure and reliable way to identify people. Like any new technology, it is likely to be mistrusted, and unless it goes mainstream and customers feel confident that the data is safe and secure, I don’t see it being viable.”

Face-off

Customers are seemingly unconvinced by the technology, too. Only 32% of UK shoppers feel “relaxed” and “willing to use facial recognition” to pay for goods and services, research by UK marketplace Onbuy.com has found. Meanwhile, just 17% of 5,000 respondents say they are comfortable about other people using facial recognition on them.

I think today most customers would find that intrusive, “secret state” and a little bit scary

Managing director of one high street lifestyle retailer

The managing director of one high street lifestyle retailer says: “It’s a very fine line. I think today most customers would find that intrusive, ’secret state’ and a little bit scary. I believe it would make people feel uncomfortable as we talk about it in its current state.”

CCTV cameras are widely in use in public and private spaces

CCTV cameras are widely in use in public and private spaces

He added: “It wouldn’t be top of my priorities [to implement] at the moment. We get excellent data from our customers and personally it is easier to achieve from collaborative ways [such as emails, reviews and surveys] than facial recognition.”

Safe spaces

Nevertheless, other retail experts believe that, as stores continue to close across the UK, retailers must use every weapon in their armoury to attract shoppers to the high street – and that includes the increased convenience and security offered by facial recognition.

Jack Felstead, retail strategy director at digital agency MediaVision, says: “CCTV is an integral part of our society and essential to ensure our safety and security, especially when shopping. If implemented correctly [facial recognition] technology could potentially revolutionise the way we shop, and make us all safer in the process.”

Ivan Mazour, CEO and founder of artificial intelligence-powered customer marketing platform for retailers Ometria, agrees: “Facial recognition technology brings retailers several steps closer to the holy grail of customer data: creating a ‘single customer view’.

If implemented correctly [facial recognition] technology could potentially revolutionise the way we shop, and make us all safer in the process

Jack Felstead, retail strategy director at digital agency MediaVision

“It’s also not an alien technology to consumers – many of us use it several times a day to unlock our phones and make mobile payments.”

Ethical issues

However, experts admit there are still some barriers that need to be addressed, and that it might be a while before the technology is trusted by customers.

Mazour says: “Of course, there are barriers. It’s expensive: the tech itself, joining it up with other technologies and ensuring all gathered data is in line with up-to-date data privacy legislation.

“For retailers without the infrastructure to support such an undertaking – and to ensure the data is leveraged in the most ethical and relevant way for the customer. It’s worth focusing on other innovations first.”

One high street retail veteran agrees: “If it makes customers’ lives easier, makes the product cheaper and the service better, then it doesn’t matter what it is because it will have a cut-through in retail.

“If it isn’t all the above, if it’s spooky and not seamless, then it won’t.”

The Drapers Verdict

In its current state, facial recognition technology does not have a solid place in the retail industry. The software is expensive, customers are not yet convinced, and it presents too many data and privacy risks.

However, as the software continues to be developed and issues are addressed, we cannot rule out that it has the potential to be the ultimate “game changer” for retailers in the future.

As footfall slumps and store closures continue, the industry must do all it can to attract shoppers to the high street – and the ease of paying for products with your face, combined with a safe shopping haven, could be one answer.

 

 

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