Customer experience or exploitation – Tesco Face Scanning plans are met with mixed reactions

13th November 2013

Last week Tesco unveiled plans to introduce a controversial new dimension to their customer experience:  face-scanning technology – at all of their 450 petrol stations in order to target advertising towards specific customers.

shopping bag

Photo by Jacek Dylag on Unsplash

Retail Technology

The seemingly innocuous intended purpose of the scan is to determine the age and gender of the customer as they wait in line to make their purchases – this information will then be used to show them relevant adverts on a screen positioned at the till, when they pay.  Amscreen, one of the companies behind  the technology describe it as a  “real time digital network'”[to] “deliver engaging and dynamic content to a weekly audience of over five million adults… the rollout of this technology represents the largest of its kind anywhere in the world.”

Simon Sugar, CEO of Amscreen (and son of Lord Alan)  explains:

“Yes it’s like something out of Minority Report, but this could change the face of British retail and our plans are to expand the screens into as many supermarkets as possible….”


Privacy campaigners such as Nick Pickles of Big Brother Watch take issue with the system – suggesting that there is a huge problem with consent  and that any companies or stores that do adopt  this system must tell their customers:

“Scanning customers as they walk through the store without customers ever giving permission for them to be scanned in that way … there’s a huge consent issue there.

“If people were told that every time they walked into a supermarket, or a doctor’s surgery or a law firm, that the CCTV camera in the corner is trying to find out who they are, I think that will have a huge impact on what buildings people go into.”

According to Pickles, the only way a system of this kind can be ethically implemented is if customers are able to ‘opt in’ to have their image stored or their behaviour tracked, rather than having no choice in the matter or not realising it is taking place.

Facial Recognition vs. Face Detection

Whilst many are concerned about privacy, Quividi, the French company behind the technology which is licensed to Amscreen are quick to stress that they “don’t do facial recognition [they] do face detection” –  As chief operating officer of Quividi, Ke Quang, explains:

“It’s software which works from the video feed coming off the camera. It can detect if it’s seeing a face, but it never records the image or biomorphological information or traits. It picks up if it’s seeing a man or a woman, the amount of time they pay attention to the screen, and their presence in front of the screen. The key thing though is that it never records or remembers any information. If you go from one camera in one location to another, it can’t tell.”

Does it work?

In addition to privacy, some people are also concerned about the efficacy of the technology – what if it gets it wrong? Would a teen customer be embarrassed if an advert for older adults popped up? And if the queue is populated with a group comprising different ages and genders what gets shown on the screen? Quividi assert that the system is very accurate, according to their website in a study of 856 participants, of whom 72% were men, it was 95% accurate at spotting men, and 87% in recognising women. The study stated that the  score with women was lower because nearly a fifth of them were wearing baseball caps and if you exclude them, it exhibits 92% accuracy at spotting women. So if you have privacy concerns our advice is to wear a baseball cap – then if it decides you’re a man in front of a queue full of people you can pull it down over your face and shuffle out as well.

Global technology

This isn’t the first time this technology has been used in the UK, but it’s the first time it has been used as part of a customer experience concept.  In February 2012 the charity Plan applied the technology to their  adverts on bus shelters. If the person looking at the screen was identified as male, they were shown details of Plan’s website and  if they were female, they were shown  a video campaign in which three girls talked about their lives, which they could supposedly relate to better than a man could. Whether or not this targeted advertising is worth the investment for the results remains to be seen but it is being rolled out to other areas of the world as well – Quividi claim to be used in 2,500 locations in 35 countries covering North and South America, Europe, Asia and New Zealand.

Protecting your Privacy

If you are concerned about your privacy and whether there is some other sinister undertone to using this technology in retail experience development (it does seem like a lot of bother just for an advert) then you can beat the system as suggested above, by wearing a baseball cap or some other form of  hat that covers your eyes and forehead (maybe not a balaclava though unless you want to get arrested).  Don’t look directly at the screen showing the ads, tilt your head away, look down or put your hand over your face – or simply vote with your feet and buy your petrol elsewhere.

Is the Customer always right?

Would Barber use this kind of technology? We know that creating a good customer experience is partly about trust and if the customers are have concerns about entering a shop and who is using their information then they might stop shopping at your store. We will be interested to see how this takes off and how it benefits both customers and retailers before deciding whether it is a good idea for the future of retail. We’re always very interested in the latest retail technology advances but  wonder if this is a step too far? Maybe there are more efficient, cheaper ‘opt-in’ choices, for example where the customer scans their Clubcard on entering the store if they want to see targeted advertising  (and maybe be rewarded with a few points for scanning it too) This would offer a 100% accuracy rate when assessing the demographic and avoid embarrassing situations where a feminine man may be shown products aimed at women. What do you think? Would you be happy to be scanned in this way or would you head to a different store? As always we’ll be interested to see how this one develops…