Mar 29, 2022 - Technology

Pop-up digital ads are taking over the freezer aisle

Image of Cooler Screens' digital representation of the products in a store's refrigerated section
A store's cooler section is turned into a series of digital smart screens. Photo courtesy of Cooler Screens

Grabbing a cold beverage at your local retailer is turning into a high-tech digital odyssey, with ordinary cooler doors coming alive to offer up product information, deals and — yes — advertisements.

Why it matters: The imposing digital screens, which play full-motion video, aim to meld the experience of online shopping with brick-and-mortar stores. But they also transfer one of the biggest annoyances of the internet — pop-up ads — to the physical world. And not everyone loves that, as CNN reported.

What's happening: The dynamic displays are the brainchild of a Chicago startup called Cooler Screens, which has put them in more than 700 stores in 31 cities, including some Walgreens, Kroger and CVS locations.

  • From a distance, they look like big electronic billboards with sprawling ads featuring a sparkling Coke, for example, or a mouthwatering scoop of chocolate ice cream.
  • When you approach, those advertising images turn into digital representations of the products inside the cases, including what's out of stock.
  • Sale items get promoted with special graphics to draw shoppers' attention, as do nutritional details about select products.

They're not the only game in town: Real Digital Media's Primasee Freezer Cooler is a "translucent digital display showcasing high-definition, full-motion video embedded within a freezer or cooler door's glass panel," the company says.

  • The company boasts that it "increases shopper engagement" and "supports touch capabilities for interactive promotions and product messaging."

How it works: Cooler Screens' high-tech coolers are outfitted with laser sensors that can detect the presence of a customer within 8 feet, triggering the switch in the display screens.

  • There are no cameras on the outside of the coolers, so no images are captured that can identify individuals.
  • Inside the coolers, cameras are used to track product inventory and positioning, which also helps short-staffed retailers replenish shelves when necessary.
  • The technology is designed to help brands capitalize on the critical 3-5 seconds when consumers are deciding what to buy.
  • For marketers, the displays provide useful data about how many people interacted with the technology, how long they dwelled in front of the screen, and how often they opened the door.

Context: Cooler Screens co-founder and CEO Arsen Avakian, whose previous company sold Argo Tea beverages, tells Axios he was often frustrated by sloppy store displays and limited marketing opportunities to influence consumer choices at the point of sale.

  • "Why couldn't this be all digital, just as it is on the internet, to make this information more dynamic and more relevant for consumers?" he wondered.
  • He co-founded Cooler Screens in 2017 along with three others, including the former CEO of Walgreens Boots Alliance, Greg Wasson.
  • The company has raised more than $80 million, according to Crunchbase.
  • Cooler Screens says it reaches more than 90 million consumers per month across 10,000 screens in 700 locations.
  • More than 180 consumer product brands are marketing on the platform, including Anheuser-Busch InBev, Nestle, PepsiCo, Tyson, Unilever and Red Bull. 

What they're saying: Digital screens can confuse customers and add a physical barrier to the simple process of reaching into a glass cooler, University of Georgia associate professor Julio Sevilla, a consumer behavior expert, told CNN.

  • "People really appreciate their routines. They're not always seeking excitement," he said.

The other side: Cooler Screens' Avakian tells Axios it has hired third-party researchers to track customer feedback and that "more than 90% of customers no longer prefer traditional glass cooler doors."

  • A Walgreens spokesperson said by email that the retailer continues to evaluate the technology's impact on customers and its business.
  • "With this collaboration with Cooler Screens, we can offer simplified access to the latest and most relevant product information to make more informed in-store decisions that best fit customers' budgets, tastes and preferences," the spokesperson said.
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