Creeping on You in the Cold Drinks Aisle

Wednesday, February 27th, 2019

A new digital door technology from a company called Cooler Screens is now being tested in Walgreens, and it sounds absolutely awful. Rather than a basic, transparent glass door, coolers and freezers will be sealed by screens that show a sanitized image of the products behind them. Supposedly, these screens will:

  • Save energy

  • Help monitor inventory

  • Help customers with poor eyesight

  • Make products more visually appealing

That’s all nice enough, and those mild benefits might even be worth replacing a simple glass pane with a complex TV screen. However, further reading ultimately makes those benefits sound like nothing so much as an after-the-fact justification for the real motives behind this technology:

Flashing banner ads float between the digital rows of goods…in addition to the flashy ads and “smart” merchandising, these screens are equipped with sensors and cameras designed to watch and profile the appearance and actions of customers who find themselves in their path, like me. Approximate age and gender. How long my gaze lingers on the bottles of tea.

It seems there’s money to be earned by creeping on you in the cold drinks aisle, and Cooler Screens is determined to try and earn it. If this takes off, animated advertisements, eyeball tracking, and customer profiling will all become part of our simple shopping experience. But don’t worry, Cooler Screens has a privacy policy:

A. Information Collected through our Smart Coolers.

We work with retailers to deploy Smart Coolers in their stores. The Smart Coolers are equipped with computerized cameras that record videos and images of consumers who walk by or stand in proximity to the Smart Coolers. The cameras are connected to software provided by our Service Providers. Depending on the jurisdiction, the software may process facial images of consumers in real-time to determine gender, age or age range, number of consumers, and/or how consumers interact with the Smart Coolers. We do not save the videos or images beyond this processing. The software develops statistics concerning the environment where the particular Smart Cooler is located. We use those statistics for purposes of understanding consumer trends and purchase behavior, which may be used to inform advertising campaigns and product placement.

Cooler Screens does not collect or retain any information that individually identifies consumers.

Unwritten, but implied, are the phrases “…at this time” or “…yet”, or perhaps most realistically, “…until we can earn a few more cents by taking things even further”. Because of course, the privacy policy also includes this catch-all:

10. Changes to this Privacy Policy. We reserve the right to revise and reissue this Privacy Policy at any time. Any changes will be effective immediately upon posting of the revised Privacy Policy. Your continued use of our Service indicates your consent to the Privacy Policy then posted. If the changes are material, we may provide you additional notice to your email address.

As a customer, continued use of the Cooler Screens “Service” might simply mean “walking into the grocery store”. Individual consumers have very limited control over how this sort of encroachment affects our lives. At some point, those with more power need to have the backbone to simply say “Enough”, and refuse to indulge in the mindless pursuit of every last possible source of revenue. Failing that, I don’t know how we stop the continual overreach by companies looking to mine our data and our eyeballs for profit.

While I’m sure it’s a futile endeavor, after poking at the Cooler Screens website, I felt compelled to send the following to their public email address:

  • To anyone who might listen at Cooler Screens,

    Please, just stop. You are making the world a worse place. Reconsider what you’re doing. Not every single thing that can be tracked and monetized must be. Is this what you want your legacy to be?

    Yuck.

It’s unlikely that the founders and employees of Cooler Screens will have a sudden moral awakening, but at least it was cathartic. Perhaps this technology will instead be killed by the marketplace itself, failing to generate enough revenue to be worthwhile. That would at least be something. One way or another, I hope Cooler Screens is shuttered before bright, blinking advertising gains yet another foothold in our lives.


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