Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Consumer insight in the wild: better retail with emotional tracking

By Rees Calder, Business Development Director, Avantgarde


Emotional transience is what makes us human, yet truly understanding a consumer’s fleeting state of mind seems beyond the grasp of most retailers.

Think about the last time you browsed in-store. You perused displays; probably picked up products to examine them. You may even have dabbled in a spot of showrooming, checking an item on a shelf with the sole intention of finding it online later.

Each of these actions prompts saccades, the flitting of our eyes from one object to another. And every saccade catches information that lights up our emotions, from the surprise and delight brands and retailers are keen to create to the disappointment – perhaps due to stockout or cost – that they’re desperate to avoid.

While understanding this whirlwind of feelings could underpin the consumer connections retailers and brands have always sought, such emotional intelligence has scarcely been available.

But that’s about to change.

A new era of emotional understanding

New technology is coming to market that promises to transform the retail industry’s understanding of consumer emotions, driving engagement and boosting the bottom line.

Using Artificial Intelligence, tools can measure shifting, real-life emotions captured on camera, feeding back information instantly – and at scale – that pinpoints people’s feelings from the moment they stroll into a store.

This information can be recorded across a range of relevant emotional responses such as those relating to a particular item on sale, sales promotions and offers, store layout and use of space, products being unavailable or interactions with shop-floor staff.

The technology processes people’s emotional responses in real-time, providing raw data to a dashboard while capturing facial expressions. It can also identify age and gender.

And, because personal data is removed by the software behind this new way to generate emotional intelligence it’s all fully compliant with GDPR.

From insight to better experience

It might sound a bold claim, but the insight made available by all this is only as finite as a retailer’s imagination. Store teams will be able to slice and dice data relating to five key facial expressions – happy, sad, angry, excited and frustrated – and cross-reference it with pretty much any product or promotion.

To give you a better idea of what I’m talking about, retailers and the brands they stock should be able to access insights that are as granular as:

Men aged 18 to 25 tend to spend 55% more time browsing shoes on shelves with a red background;

Any consumer aged 40-plus frowns 60% of the time when reading an at-shelf description of product X;

Shoppers’ expressions changed from confused to happy 40% faster when viewing product X compared to product Y.

Armed with in-depth insight about how certain aspects of the in-store journey make consumers feel, retailers will get closer to ensuring consumers react in the right way, at the right time, to products and experiences in the physical environment.

Turning emotional insight into action

As the technology develops, I believe stores will soon be able to act almost instantly on their responses. Ultimately, this will mean tweaking the shopper experience to design and create a more dynamic and engaging environment.

That won’t just be the case for concept shops, but it can be true for everyday retailers such as the grocery giants, too.

Emotion tracking can be especially effective for flagship stores such as Amazon Go and Selfridges. For example, it allows brands to test shopper response to new products but can also breathe new life into retail theatre, logging people’s interaction with and feelings about demonstrations and new technologies.

It’s similarly useful for less innovative retail spaces. Teams will be able to rapidly gather and analyse response data to gauge emotions about displayed items, which can be fed back into the customer journey as well as product development.

Hail the halo effect of emotion tracking

Understanding how different demographics interact within a retail space, gathering insight at an emotional level, is one of the most valuable assets a store owner can possess. It’s a level of granularity they’ve previously been unable to access.

That’s great news for the consumer who can look forward to better in-store journeys. But it’s also a timely intervention for retail as a whole. Being able to deliver more tailored, engaging retail experiences will in turn boost people’s interest in shopping on the high street.

As people continue to return to physical spaces following two years of Covid restrictions capturing how they react and acting on the data will be a win-win for all concerned, as retailers turn more furrowed brows into happy faces.

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