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Creeped out by camera-equipped mannequins? They’re coming

A display at the Sears store at Upper Canada Mall, 17600 Yonge Street, Newmarket on May 24, 2012.

Peter Power/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

In the not-so-distant future, store mannequins might be the ones playing "I spy." reported Tuesday that Benetton will be among the first retailers to openly test out mannequins equipped with a camera inside their heads.

As if that's not Orwellian enough, profiling software will allow the mannequins to collect information on consumer behaviour.

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As Andrew Roberts, the article's author, quips, the EyeSee is "no dummy."

Developed by Italian company Almax SpA, the mannequins borrow the same technology used at airports to spot criminals.

The company's website explains that their evolved creations can analyze facial features and provide "statistical and contextual information useful to the development of targeted marketing strategies."

All this data can conceivably help stores catch up to online retailers, which have long benefitted from gathering information about their customers.

The mannequins went on sale last December and Almax confirms it has been working with five companies – "leading fashion brands" included – while declining to name which ones. Benetton did not wish to comment.

So what have been the results so far? According to the article, "a clothier introduced a children's line after the dummy showed that kids made up more than half its midafternoon traffic, the company says. Another store found that a third of visitors using one of its doors after 4 p.m. were Asian, prompting it to place Chinese-speaking staff by that entrance."

Beyond the software, the biggest difference between typical security cameras and the EyeSee is that the latter can track consumers at eye level. Obviously, this raises new ethical and perhaps even legal issues, especially if the stores do not post signs that shoppers are under surveillance.

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Of course, the stores could also use the cameras to keep close watch on employees – monitoring whether someone spends too much time talking to customers or never takes enough time to refold sweaters.

Almax says its technology will help "encourage the consumer into the store," but if you knew you Big Retailer were watching you, would you be tempted to shop somewhere else?

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