Disney might be ahead of the curve on something that might be of great interest to companies in the hospitality, travel, and retail industries. Disney has found the way to personalize an experience without getting too personal—by looking at feet.
Disney has reportedly filed for a patent for a foot-recognition system that looks at your shoes and socks and general leg size to identify you in pretty much the same way facial recognition would be able to do. Except, facial recognition is creepy and personal, and foot recognition is likely to be much less threatening to consumers.
Disney is likely planning to use foot recognition to track, pardon the pun, “foot traffic” around its parks. By using cameras that track feet, Disney will be able to see how people move around the park, when they eat, track whether they go around the park from ride to ride or zig zag around to favorites, monitor crowds, make use of restrooms, and gather a whole host of other data on improving park experience.
They could even take it a step further and personalize the experience. For instance, Disney tracks the name, birthday, and picture of annual pass holders. It could easily sync a camera to entrance turnstiles so that when annual pass holders arrive, a picture could be taken of his or her feet and they could ID specific pass holders for special treatment. When pass holders arrive on their birthdays, the park could send Mickey Mouse to greet them at a special location or arrange another customized personal experience like a birthday cake.
The Alternative to Loyalty Cards
Like most companies in the hospitality and retail industries, Disney has been trying to gather an increasing amount of information about its guests. But unlike many retail and hospitality companies, it is generally succeeding at doing it without being invasive and without loyalty cards and other gimmicks retailers tend to rely on. For example, Disney has a product called the “Magic Band” which acts as your room key, form of payment, and even as a way to get on rides by skipping the lines (with their FastPass program) that is used exclusively at their Disneyworld Resort. Any time a guest rides a ride or buys something, Disney knows it. But the product only works when a guest performs a very specific action, so the tracking is more like a series of snapshots than a movie. Tracking a guest through the whole park has been impossible, but foot recognition may change that.
Compare that experience to what a restaurant goes through. Imagine that a guest comes in at the same time every week and orders the same thing, but pays cash and does not join a rewards club. There is no way to capture the loyalty or reach out to that customer for a red carpet experience. The only way to treat that customer like a loyal regular is if the local manager on the ground is aware of it. A restaurant is putting quite a lot of pressure on the least-trained staff to treat a valuable customer the way they would like.
For quite some time, retailers have attempted to capture data just like that. Some more invasive ways would be to use beacons to track phones or to use facial recognition. Both would be invasive and potentially illegal. Loyalty club cards and mobile apps have been the method of choice, but they require buy-in. Foot tracking is less invasive and could allow for a treasure trove of anonymous data that would allow companies to better understand who comes into their stores, how they move around, and how often they come back.
Take a grocery store as an example. Products often compete for eye-level shelf space and aisles that are considered high traffic. Foot traffic data could be made more precise and allow grocery stores or other retailers to monetize shelf space better either by charging directly or by placing high profit margin objects in the “best aisles.”
The Tradeoff Between Data and Customer Comfort
Of course, there are some obvious drawbacks. Unlike Disney, where guests usually wear the same shoes for an entire visit and often for more than one day (comfortable shoes are a theme park must), returning visitors to restaurants and stores are not generally wearing the same shoes for each visit. And footwear recognition would not be nearly as sensitive as facial recognition. More than one person of the same general size could own the same brand of shoes and come in on different days. This would not be perfect data as it would be with facial recognition. But companies always have to trade the intimacy of the data with the level of invasiveness with which the data is acquired. Annoy your customer too much and you won’t need their data, because they won’t be coming back.
The best use of the data is likely more for anonymous traffic analysis and combining it with loyalty card data to create personalized, exclusive experiences. As the patent was only just filed, Disney says it currently has no immediate plans to deploy foot recognition. No doubt there are still a lot of bugs to work out for implementation on the scale of a theme park. But retailers, especially those with high foot-traffic businesses, might want to be on the look out.
At the very least, companies in similar industries should use this as inspiration for Internet of Things projects. Sensors, RFID, and intelligent camera technologies are getting cheaper and more ubiquitous. Incorporating real world and real time data into your business intelligence efforts may soon become table stakes for any customer-facing industry. Doing it well and doing it in ways that don’t turn off the customer will separate winners and losers.