Next time you visit the grocery store you may want to smile. That’s because cameras may not just be watching you to deter theft, they may be checking to see how happy you are (and how old you are, and what your gender and ethnicity are, etc). Welcome to the new surveillance supermarket, where you provide private companies with reams of actionable data while you shop.

An Associated Press report yesterday outlines a new wave of companies looking to install cameras in coolers and shelves in supermarkets. These cameras work to guess attributes like your age, gender and emotional state to show you hyper-targeted ads in real-time. The AP story mentions startups like Mood Media and Cooler Screens as companies creating this all-seeing technology, and says retailers like Kroger and Walgreens are experimenting with them in different locations across the country.

We just covered a startup called AWM Smart Shelf this week, which recently raised $10 million and uses a combination of cameras, AI and digital displays to serve up real-time ads and product recommendations, and even guide you through the store to find what the product you want. On its website, AWM touts its ability to identify ethnicity, age and emotional state.

The idea behind these companies is that these deep visuals can give retailers deep insight into their customers. Knowing what, when and where people purchase items tied to demographic information can arm stores with data used to serve up specials that entice them to buy more.

But it’s not just about building a better advertising mousetrap. There are a host of startups looking to retrofit supermarkets with hundreds of ceiling-mounted cameras to facilitate cashierless checkout (à la Amazon Go). These cameras keep track in real time of where you go in the store, what you pick up (and put back) and create a frictionless shopping experience.

Just yesterday, Walmart unveiled its Intelligent Retail Lab store, which uses banks of cameras and AI to monitor shelf inventory. Walmart said the cameras don’t currently track shopper movements or employ facial recognition, but it’s hard to believe a giant retailer like Walmart would stop at just making sure shelves were properly stocked. It, like Amazon is on a constant quest for efficiency, and understanding the behavior of its customers goes a long way towards streamlining operations.

All of these installations bring up serious questions about what kind of data is stored, how it’s being used, who has access to it, how long it’s stored and how it’s protected. It’s nice if some algorithm suggests milk to me on an in-store screen when I buy my Weetabix, but will that same algorithm unknowingly try to put booze in front of a depressed alcoholic in recovery? Or will it discriminate and serve up different prices based on skin color? What if your store’s data is connected to your insurance and the two prevent you from buying ice cream? These are questions retailers are going to have to answer (and we’ll be asking them!)

While privacy alarm bells should be ringing, part of me wonders how much people will care given the constant state of surveillance we’re already under. Will this just be one more tradeoff we make for convenience?

I myself am partly to blame. I love shopping at Amazon Go because it’s so easy. I’m a little less enthused about real-time ads, but that’s mostly because I think a store filled with constantly flashing digital signage would give me a headache. But in the meantime, I’m happy to tell Safeway what I’m buying when I punch in my loyalty card number to save a couple bucks.

Cameras in your grocery store are coming, are you smiling about it?

Subscribe to The Spoon

Food tech news served fresh to your inbox. 

Invalid email address

Leave a Reply