Using Infrared Sensors to Measure Aisle Eyeballs

By Evan Schuman  |  Posted 2006-09-29

Using Infrared Sensors to Measure Aisle Eyeballs

Some of the biggest names in retail and consumer goods—including Wal-Mart, Kroger, Walgreens, Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola, Disney, Kelloggs and Miller Brewing—have gotten together to make a sort of Nielsen Ratings for retail aisles.

The concept, which has been the subject of a major trial with 10 stores, is not especially cutting-edge. Using no more than a dozen sets of wireless bidirectional infrared sensors, each store would count the number of people who entered and exited each shopping aisle, according to Peter Hoyt, executive director of In-Store Marketing Institute, which was involved in the trial.

The data wouldnt be much more sophisticated than a turnstile counter, in the sense that it wouldnt attempt to identify the shoppers nor capture how long any person stayed in that aisle or record anything else. The data would then be transmitted, stored and matched against POS (point-of-sale) records of purchases ultimately made, and then the data would be analyzed.

Hoyt argued that the very small amount of data being collected—and the seemingly innocuous nature of it—is deliberate and is aimed at eliminating consumer resistance to this kind of consumer tracking technique.

There are many other retail tech tactics to get at this kind of information, projects ranging from smart carts that report back their location, the elaborate use of video cameras to constantly track customers and smart shelves paired with item-level RFID. But the infrared sensor approach isnt merely less expensive and easier to deploy than those alternatives. Its also a lot less threatening.

"The general public will perceive [other techniques] as being invasive. This technology is attractive because its so benign," Hoyt said. "If you tell people youre tracking them with video or with RFID, they freak out."

The main objective of all of this, however, has little to do with IT and everything to do with marketing.

From a publishing advertising perspective, Web sites have a wide range of metrics (page views, click-throughs, exit and entry pages, etc.), print publishers have focus group-like surveys (Starch, among others), and television has Nielsen and other ratings.

But among the biggest sellers of advertisements in the world are retail chains. Every promo that is placed in an aisle, every display, every premium product placement, these all generate substantial revenue for retailers, and yet there are virtually no ways for retailers or consumer goods manufacturers to know how many eyeballs they are getting for any placement in any aisle. (The industry needs to coin a phrase to refer to the eyeballs delivered per aisle. Aisleballs? I didnt think so.)

Next Page: A good first step.

Page 2

The retailers involved were quick to applaud the effort. Stephen Quinn, senior vice president of marketing of Wal-Mart, issued a statement saying the effort was a good first step.

"This study has tremendous importance for retailers," Quinn said. "Informed by the sophisticated data that this new metric will provide, retailers, for the very first time, now can consider new store layouts and product adjacencies to create an in-store experience that is more relevant and thus even more satisfying."

A big part of the number-crunching for this trial involves matching the data collected in the aisles with POS checkout figures. Although Hoyt didnt get into the details of how the POS data is integrated with the aisle-counter data, it will deliver a ratio of "the number of eyeballs that went by a particular promotion" versus "the number of purchases of products from that aisle." As promotions are added, removed and changed, retailers and manufacturers would theoretically be able to see how those ratios change.

Hoyt said the number and position of the infrared sensors can help isolate particular segments or brands. "You have to frame an area," he said. "A sensor at one end of the aisle would be able to track the traffic for that entire aisle," but additional sensors could track just, for example, Band-Aids.

The ability for this group to be able to announce so many major players is crucial as this effort will ultimately have little value if its not widely—or even universally—accepted. "Our objective is to deliver a metric that will become an industry standard," Hoyt said. "For retailers, the big Aha has everything to do with finally being able to understand where [consumers] go and how they move throughout the stores. This will help us determine better adjacencies."

As is to be expected when a group consists of so many internal-politics-driven companies, the language associated with various players was carefully chosen in a statement from the group, which is calling itself the In-Store Metrics Consortium and declares its goal as delivering "a common language to determine consumer reach in-store."

Procter & Gamble is identified as the studys presenting sponsor. 3M, Coca-Cola, Walt Disney, Kelloggs and Miller Brewing are listed as co-sponsors, while "supporting retailers" are Albertsons, Kroger, Walgreens and Wal-Mart.

One key marketing point of the group is that "this metric can forecast traffic and unduplicated impressions with a very high degree of accuracy" and that "accurate chainwide projections are possible by using this metric and data from a limited samples of stores."

The groups analytical package is called PRISM, standing for "Pioneering Research for an In-Store Metric." I guess Pioneering beat out Pretty and Powerful, not to mention Pristine and Perfect. Im sure one late-night discussion suggested Pretentious, but that would have been far too much of a gift.

Evan Schuman is retail editor for Ziff Davis Internets Enterprise Edit group. He has tracked high-tech issues since 1987, has been opinionated long before that and doesnt plan to stop anytime soon. He can be reached at

Check out eWEEK.coms for the latest news, views and analysis on technologys impact on retail.

Rocket Fuel