As a society, we’ve grown accustomed to living under surveillance. From security cameras capturing our every move in airports and shopping malls, to online cookies that stalk us across the web to serve up relevant ads (or creepy ads, depending on your point of view), we’ve steadily lowered our expectations of privacy in public places.
But are we ready to accept a world where even our groceries are watching us?
That’s the question that The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic posed in recent days as they reported on a new “smart cooler” pilot test at Walgreens. The coolers, produced by Chicago-based Cooler Screens Inc., are designed to scan shoppers’ faces and draw conclusions about age and gender. A digital screen on the cooler will then display ads or offers based on those demographics. A 70-year-old man browsing the aisle, for example, might be served a different ad than a 23-year-old woman. Beyond ad and marketing optimization, smart coolers can collect critical data that tracks eye movements to see how shoppers browse the shelves and identify which products they look at more closely before putting them back or adding them to their baskets.
At their core, smart coolers apply to a physical space analogous tracking technology that we see employed on Amazon and other ecommerce sites. And in doing so, they give brands and brick-and-mortar retailers the opportunity to deliver more relevant advertising and gather insights about their anonymous customers.
From a researcher’s perspective, smart coolers (and similar technology) can be a goldmine of insights, especially if you want to measure ad effectiveness and understand retail shopping behaviors. And the speed and efficiency of delivering those insights could help stakeholders make real-time changes to marketing tactics, product placements and inventory management. And from the consumer’s perspective, they may be presented with more relevant deals or offers than they would otherwise.
But even with all of these positives, there’s no denying that smart coolers present serious and unavoidable questions. Exactly how much data is stored? Is the data sold to third parties? What type of security is used to protect the data? Can the data be used to identify a shopper individually? And can it be used to link these shoppers back to more sensitive purchases, such as medications, personal hygiene and prophylactics (after all, Walgreens is a pharmacy)?
To Walgreens’ and Cooler Screens’ credit, it’s clear that they’ve considered and anticipated at least some of these questions. According to the WSJ story:
“[Cooler Screens] says it only produces and stores anonymous metadata that describes the size and demographics of an audience, and doesn’t store or transmit image data or unique identifying information about shoppers. Walgreens also is posting a privacy statement and a concierge to answer customer questions near the coolers in its stores that test them, a Walgreens spokesman said.”
Smart coolers are just another marketing and market research innovation among a string of AI- and cloud-powered tech that will continue to emerge and evolve, both in capabilities and applications. But as researchers and marketers approach the line between insights and intrusion, they must always take measures to make sure that customer trust is never put on ice.