Using Infrared Sensors to Measure Aisle Eyeballs

Some of the biggest names in retail and consumer goods have gotten together to make a sort of Nielsen Ratings for retail aisles.

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.