The science of shopping

When customers walk into a designer store or a supermarket, what is their behaviour pattern while making their choice? This is what a software developed by Indian-origin scientists in America is trying to fathom, reports Miles O’Brien

Next time you go to a store, take a minute to look at the things that are trying to grab your attention. With so many products available and so many stores and websites, how do you decide what to buy and where to shop? Whether it’s convenience, good service or finding the best deals, store owners want to know what attracts you to their stores, and what it takes to keep you coming back. Turns out, there’s a science to all this.

With support from Virginia-based National Science Foundation, computer scientists Rajeev Sharma, Satish Mummareddy and their colleagues have developed a software, which breaks down shopping behaviour much like websites do. The Pennsylvania-based company, VideoMining, uses overhead cameras to put together a top down view of how people shop and what they buy.

"Basically, what VideoMining does is use software, along with cameras mounted on the ceiling of stores to track shoppers as they move around the store and create data that helps us understand how shoppers are shopping," explains Sharma, who has a bachelor’s degree from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, and a Ph.D. from the University of Maryland at College Park. The software creates maps of a store’s traffic patterns by digitally analysing the video. Using the traffic data, VideoMining creates charts and graphs showing well-travelled areas in a store and dead spots —places people ignore. The software can also tabulate how long shoppers take before that "moment of truth" when they select an item to purchase. Cameras are positioned directly above and picture resolution is intentionally set low so all shoppers remain anonymous.

"You cannot identify individual shoppers," says Sharma. "The computer is actually watching the video and generating numbers that represent (each) shopper’s behaviour. It’s all about capturing human behaviour so you can really understand it over a long period of time."

The idea is to show retailers and manufacturers the best areas in the store to place products, and how to create a comfortable place for people to shop. "By providing the data to retailers and manufacturers," says Sharma, "they can customise and design the stores and the shelves and the products to match the shoppers’ interest."

Sharma identifies trends. For example, people prefer wider aisles when they shop. Women take a lot longer to shop than men, and, except in a few cases, brand loyalty is not always strong.

"What we’re finding in some categories, people are going to the store and making up their mind right there. You can see people coming in, going between brands and picking up the product based upon price; based upon other attributes."

The software was initially created to monitor the elderly and disabled in their homes. Now it’s keeping an eye on shoppers, giving businesses a scientific leg up in the rat race of figuring out how to best serve their customers and keep them coming back. — SPAN/TWF