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High-tech software for retailers discreetly tracks customers

Every retailer wants to know which products attract shoppers. San Francisco startup Prism Skylabs has developed sophisticated technology that helps business owners get a window into the minds of customers.

Sumi Das Producer / Reporter
Sumi Das has been covering technology since the original dot-com boom. She was hired by cable network TechTV in 1998 to produce and host a half-hour program devoted to new and future technologies. Prior to CNET, Sumi served as a Washington DC-based correspondent, covering breaking news for CNN. She reported live from New Orleans and contributed to CNN's coverage of Hurricane Katrina, which earned the network a Peabody Award. She also files in-depth tech stories for BBC News which are seen by a primarily international audience.
Sumi Das
3 min read
Imagine that you're the proud owner of a good old-fashioned brick-and-mortar shop. Now imagine a software service that gives you a snapshot of what's hot and what's not in your store. That's what Prism Skylabs offers.

The San Francisco startup has developed technology that uses video captured by security cameras to track customers' movements and create "heatmaps." The images represent an aggregate of all the shoppers' whereabouts in the store and which items they touched. For retailers, it's a valuable tool for making decisions about product placement and floor layout.

Prism Skylabs also offers timelines, showing activity levels in the store and path maps that reveal how customers navigate through the space. But perhaps the most interesting aspect of the service is that all the images and summarized data are completely anonymous. The technology uses security camera footage, but it essentially erases people from the video.

Prism Skylabs CEO Steve Russell says it accomplishes that with advanced technology that includes computer vision:

That allows us to understand customer behavior, where people are walking, what they're doing, how long they're staying at a certain place, and then we can bundle that all up in a privacy-protected way...The other piece is a kind of technology called computation photography...We're really getting hundreds or thousands of exposures every minute, and we can turn noisy, grainy, out-of-focused surveillance footage into something that looks like beautiful photography.

Software tracks shoppers to find stores' hot zones
Watch this: Software tracks shoppers to find stores' hot zones

After a period of beta testing, Prism Skylabs officially launched last November. The company isn't divulging exactly how many customers have signed up, but it has said it has dozens, ranging from boutiques to cafes to a large electronics retailer.

Clothing designer Sunhee Moon has been using Prism Skylabs in her two San Francisco shops for a few months. She says it's absolutely worth the $50 monthly fee: "I can access this software in Asia, in New York, on my cellular phone...It's very convenient, especially when there's some kind of a problem...or a mannequin is getting changed up...It gives me peace of mind. It's like me being there, without me being there."

By studying the heatmaps, Moon learned that customers were gravitating toward the right side of her shop, so she rearranged her inventory. "I'll try to put my best product there, or my best new releases on that side of the store," Moon said. "And then my left side is when they're leaving the store so...you could always put your sale things around that area to keep customers still engaged in the store."

Customer engagement -- quite possibly the holy grail for retailers since it typically leads to sales. Moon says she's noticed a bump in revenue since she started using the software, but she hasn't calculated the exact amount.

Moon researched other services for her business, but ultimately decided that Prism Sklyabs was the easiest to install (it only took a few hours) and the simplest to use. The company does have competition, though.

RetailNext launched a product in 2009 that offers heatmapping plus other detailed metrics: number of store visitors per day, top yielding stores, sales per shopping visit, and dollar amounts spent per customer to name a few. Like Prism Skylabs, RetailNext uses security camera video to generate the heatmaps, but it also gathers information through other means: RFID tags on items, point-of-sale information (from cash registers), and sensors on shelves that detect product movement. The additional figures and stats will cost you, though. RetailNext estimates that installation for a relatively small store would cost about $1,000 to $2,000 and the annual fee would run an additional $1,000 to $2,000.

RetailNext also has some interesting new features in the works. In the near future, it will offer multi-camera heatmaps, allowing a major department store to get a sense of highly trafficked areas, for example, and demographic detection. Cameras will use facial recognition and algorithms to determine customers' gender.

In the ongoing fight to keep brick-and-mortar stores alive, retailers may welcome every bit of high-tech help they can get. And this frequent retail therapy-seeker wishes them well.