Foodstuffs North Island (FSNI) – a co-operative of more than 300 grocers across the North Island of New Zealand – has started trialling the use of facial recognition (FR) technology as part of its ongoing fight against retail crime.

Peak body Retail NZ has welcomed the move, saying many retailers across New Zealand will be watching the trial closely.

In 2022, Kmart and Bunnings halted the use of FR technology after The Office Of the Australian Information Commissioner launched an investigation into its compliance with privacy laws. 

The New Zealand FR trial is taking place in up to 25 North Island stores and is currently intended to run for up to six months. The technologies' ability to help better identify repeat offenders and thereby reduce harmful behaviour in store will help Foodstuffs North Island determine if FR becomes adopted more widely by the co-op.

The facial recognition (FR) technology works by matching, in real-time, the faces of people who enter a store against that store’s record of offenders and accomplices.

The FR system analyses facial features and converts them into an alphanumeric computer code. Both the images and the code will be securely stored.

Each of the 25 stores trialing this will have clear signage at the entrance. The FR system must detect a 90% facial match. If a store’s FR system matches the face of a person entering the store with that of someone in the store’s record of offenders and accomplices within the FR system, two specially trained team members will then need to agree it’s a match before the information is acted on. 

Team members have also been trained on how to best approach people who are verified as being repeat offenders.

According to FSNI, the trial follows 4,719 incidents of retail crime reported across its stores in the last quarter of 2023, including 513 breaches of trespass, up 52% on the previous quarter.

Supermarket workers are reportedly being stabbed, punched, kicked, bitten and spat at, with repeat offenders responsible for around one-third of all incidents.

FSNI CEO Chris Quin said the 4,719 incidences was 34% more than the 3,510 recorded in the previous quarter. 

“Shockingly, one of our security team was stabbed recently and our people are being punched, kicked, bitten and spat at,” Quin said. “We’re seeing over 14 serious incidents a week, including an average of two assaults.

“All too often it’s the same people, coming back to our stores despite having already been trespassed, committing more crime, and often putting our team members and customers at risk of abuse and violence."

Quin said the company has a moral and legal duty to make its stores as safe as possible for team members and customers. He said the new technology has the potential to help by identifying repeat offenders when they try to come back into its stores. 

“All images in the FR system will be instantly deleted unless a person has committed a crime, has been aggressive, violent or threatening towards our team members or customers, or has actively assisted in such harmful behaviour. This is a high threshold.

"The trial is important because we hope to establish if FR will help keep our people and customers safe without compromising their privacy. When preparing the trial, we’ve been very thorough in ensuring we respect the privacy of our customers, including having a specialist, independent organisation design and review the trial – they'll also evaluate the results. We’ve also engaged with the Office of the Privacy Commissioner to ensure they’re well briefed and aware of how the trial will work.”

Peak body Retail NZ welcomed FSNI's FR trial, claiming it will be closely watched by retailers across Aotearoa New Zealand.

Retail NZ CEO Carolyn Young said the outcomes of this trial will be of enormous interest to retailers across the motu. 

Retail crime is reportedly impacting more than 92% of retailers in New Zealand. Retail NZ released a Crime Report in October 2023 that found the cost of retail crime to its members was well over $2.6 billion. 

“More and more, retailers are dealing with threatening, violent or simply unpleasant customers, who are trying to steal or damage their property,” Young said. “Organised crime groups stealing to order, drug addicts and youths looking for notoriety on social media are driving the spike in retail crime.”

Retail NZ is also calling on the government to adequately resource police to deal with retail crime and to unclog the court system so that offenders are dealt with promptly.

“Ultimately, retail crime results in higher costs and more security barriers for all customers and consumers,” Young said. “We look forward to learning from this trial to see if the technology is suitable to be rolled out across other retailers.”

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