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    Holiday Shoppers Beware: The Mannequins Are Watching You

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    Greg Thomas

    The next time you gaze through the storefront window at that fashionably clad mannequin, know that the mannequin might be staring back. Just in time for the holiday season, a special crop of mannequins outfitted with bionic eyeball cameras and identification software is being deployed at select luxury stores around the U.S. and in three European countries.

    The new bionic mannequins have a leg up on video cameras hanging from the ceiling when it comes to spying on shoppers — even if the cameras cover every square inch of space in your favorite clothing store, mannequin makers say. That’s because their eyeball cameras are equipped with state-of-the-art facial recognition software that identifies the age, race, and gender of passers-by. Plus, they’re mannequins: They draw our attention naturally, which gives them a better shot at seeing your face.

    So far, the mannequins aren’t being employed as a security feature so much as a powerful marketing tool. Kind of like the surveillance systems at Gap in the movie Minority Report called out to incoming customers with targeted promotions and knowledge about each person’s waistline and style preference, the new mannequins give clearer indicators to retailers about what kinds of people are shopping at what times of day. Retailers are, of course, stoked on the idea.

    “Any software that can help profile people while keeping their identities anonymous is fantastic,” Uché Okonkwo, executive director of consultant Luxe Corp., told Bloomberg.

    Take the EyeSee, an Italian-made mannequin from the company Almax SpA that is undergoing a trial-run at stores around the country. Its customer profiling data prompted one clothing store to station Chinese-speaking staff by an entrance after learning that about one-third of evening shoppers who entered through the door where Asian.

    If the mannequin idea sounds a little Big Brother-y, that’s because it is. Critics are already calling out the camera-clad body models as invasion-of-privacy lawsuits waiting to happen. International laws allowing stores to set up cameras as security measures probably don’t cover mannequin spy cams used for commercial gain, they say. Online data-gathering retailers like Amazon and Fandango are covered by the terms and conditions contract customers sign before using the services. But, as one lawyer in the Bloomberg article points out, “If you’re walking into a store, where’s the choice?”

    Apparently, Almax is now testing audio recording technology that would flag certain key words and allow store employees to listen in on customer conversations. So, if you’re being tracked in department stores just like you are online, perhaps it’s time to start a Silk Road for socks and underpants.

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