These Walgreens Freezers Are Spying on You
Shopping in a public place shouldn't carry with it any expectations of privacy. Your shopping card collects data. Your credit card company knows what you're buying. Store cameras make sure you're not shoplifting. But would you expect the freezer to profile you according to your age or gender?
That's coming, and sooner than you think. At a Walgreens location in New York City, Fast Company reporter Katharine Schwab recently examined the possible future of retail customization and had a face-to-screen encounter with a cooler door that makes recommendations based on who happens to be staring into it. Instead of being see-through glass, the doors look more like slot machines—bright and vivid rows of ice cream, food, and beverage options. Using cameras, motion sensors, and eye-tracking, the door's display shifts its focus to target specific demographics.
A woman looking at the cooler might see an ad for Diet Coke, for example, while a man standing in the same spot a few minutes later could be directed to picking up a Coke Zero. Whether consumers see advertising for Red Bull or Gatorade might depend on their age. Time of day matters, too. If it's near dinnertime, maybe the screen will be nudging you toward a frozen pizza. If it's a scorching hot day, you’ll be directed to pints of ice cream.
Owing to the longstanding controversy regarding facial recognition software, the system only makes inferences about your appearance. It cannot take your photo and determine your identity, or that you've been in the store before. Instead, it analyzes your photo looking for facial characteristics and micro-measurements that sometimes correspond with age or gender.
Cooler Screens, the manufacturer behind the technology, has partnered with Walgreens locations to outfit six stores across the country with the displays to assess how consumers react to this kind of targeted promotion in the real world. If and when the practice spreads, questions are likely to follow. Does Cooler Screens store and share this data? (The company says it doesn't.) How deep does its gaze go? Will it recommend junk food to the heavyset and low-calorie options to slim figures? Will it make suggestions based on ethnicity? Will it report shoplifters to management?
For now, the Cooler Screens footprint is small, but there are some heavy hitters behind it. The startup was co-founded by former Argo Tea CEO Arsen Avakian and received financing from Microsoft. With the participating Walgreens locations reporting double-digit sales increases in freezer aisles, it may not be long before Big Freezer is watching you.
[h/t Fast Company]