Ask any Retail Exec what’s the most important part of their business and you will likely hear the same answer… the customer. But for a long time the customer has been a homogenised, anonymous, almost mythological entity, so often talked about but so rarely understood. Now the technology is here that has the potential to transform the way retailers understand their customer… it can understand their emotions!

Startups like Emotient, Realeyes and Affectiva are using artificial intelligence and facial recognition technology to track the micro expressions on our faces to see if we’re happy, sad, angry or surprised; as well as understanding our race, age and gender. And this year will also see the release of the first wearable emotion trackers, being pioneered by startups Feel and Zenta. By monitoring a wearer’s biosignals (blood pressure, heart rate), the devices will be able to build a picture of their emotional profile.

While such technology was once limited to the most innovative corners of university research labs, emotion tracking is becoming big business. These ground-breaking startups are attracting some serious funding. Emotient was recently purchased by Apple for an undisclosed amount and Affectiva has raised $34.2m to date.

Potential breakthrough in customer understanding

But what is the potential of emotion tracking for retailers? Ultimately this technology could give retailers the opportunity to learn much about the customer journey in-store. While for many years, retailers have been able to track a customer’s every move online, they have been limited in their ability to understand the customer in-store.

Emotion tracking could give retailers the ability not just to monitor how long customers spend in their stores, but also to build a picture of what pleased, interested or annoyed customers based on their emotional reaction. Using this technology effectively could revolutionise customer service. If you can track where customers are stressed or frustrated in your stores, you can begin to understand where your customer service needs to be exceptional.

This also applies to store design, where retailers could test out new formats and visual merchandising displays to really understand what pleases (or displeases) their customers. And if they wanted to take it the next level, they can send customers messages triggered by their emotions.

If you can track that a customer is stressed or unhappy then you can send them a coupon for a freebie or money off their favourite products.

If retailers want to harness the disruptive power of this technology, then there are a few key questions they need to answer.

Creepiness factor

The first, and perhaps most obvious, is addressing what can only be described as the ‘creepiness factor’… While we live in an age where people share more personal data than ever before, the concept of retailers tapping into our emotional state could be seen by some as a step too far. And with the ink barely dry on the privacy rules regulating this new technology, retailers will need to be very careful to maintain the anonymity and security of any data collected. There’s also the question of context; while facial recognition cameras may perceive someone as stressed, it may often be for reasons completely unrelated to the store environment.

Turning data into insight

Although all this data sounds great for retailers, what they need to consider is how they can turn this insight into something that’s great for customers. Never before have retailers been able to understand so easily (and en-masse) if their customers are happy, sad or irritated. The key question is what they do with this data. Retailers should adopt a rapid prototyping mindset and be prepared to use these insights to test, quickly iterate and learn from new ideas and trials to improve the store experience for their customers. Taking this approach may just make the difference between a fleeting interaction, and a lifelong relationship.

This article was originally published by Retail Week.