Ask any retail exec what is the most important part of their business and you will likely be told the customer. 

But for a long time the customer has been a homogenised, anonymous, almost mythological entity, often talked about but rarely understood.

Now there’s technology that has the potential to change the way retailers see customers by understanding their emotions. Startups such as as Emotient, Realeyes and Affectiva are using facial recognition to track micro-expressions, as well as decoding race, age and gender.

The release of the first wearable emotion trackers, pioneered by start-ups Feel and Zenta, is imminent. By monitoring biosignals – blood pressure and heart rate – the device is able to build an emotional profile of the wearer.

Potential breakthrough in customer understanding

But what is the potential for retailers? Ultimately the opportunity is to be able to learn much about the customer journey in-store.

While for many years retailers have been tracking a customer’s every move online, there has been limited ability to understand the customer in-store.

Emotion tracking could monitor not only how long people spend in stores, but build a picture of what pleased, interested or annoyed them.

This technology could revolutionise customer service. If you can track where shoppers are stressed or frustrated, you can begin to understand where customer service needs to be upped.

It also has potential to change store design – retailers could test new formats and merchandising displays to  understand what pleases (or displeases) their customers.

“They could send customers messages triggered by their emotions. If you can track that a customer is stressed or unhappy then you can send them a coupon for a freebie or money off their favourite products”

Brian Kalms

And if they wanted to take it to the next level, retailers could send customers messages triggered by their emotions. If you can track that a customer is stressed or unhappy then you can send them a coupon for a freebie or money off their favourite products.

If retailers want to harness the disruptive power of this technology, then there are a few key questions they need to answer.

Creepiness factor

The first, and perhaps most obvious, is addressing what can only be described as the creepiness factor. While people share more personal data than ever before, the concept of retailers tapping into our emotional state could be seen by some as a step too far.

And with the ink barely dry on privacy rules regulating this technology, retailers will need to be careful to maintain the anonymity and security of data collected.

There’s also the question of context. While facial recognition cameras may perceive someone as stressed, it may be for reasons unrelated to the store environment.

Turning data into insight

Although all this data sounds great, retailers need to consider how they can turn this insight into something that is great for customers.

Never before have retailers been able to understand so easily (and en masse) the emotions of their customers.

The key question is what they do with this data. Retailers should adopt a rapid prototyping mindset and be prepared to use the insights to test, quickly iterate and learn from new ideas and trials to improve the store experience.

  • Brian Kalms is partner at Elixirr