Future Tense

The New Digital Eyes in the Frozen Food Aisle

Walgreens is piloting new “smart” coolers that will serve you tailored ads in real time.

GIF of Cooler Screens.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Cooler Screens.

It’s a Monday morning in Manhattan, and I am on a mission to go to a very specific Walgreens. This is bigger than emergency lip balm, or a prepackaged Starbucks mocha. It’s about seeing the future, which, I have been told, I will find in the refrigerated food aisle.

As I enter the chain’s Union Square location—one of six nationwide that have reportedly been future-fitted—I can already see the computerized glow coming from the back of the store.

I approach.

There, instead of the usual transparent, sometimes-dingy, glass refrigerator windows I’m used to peering through to figure out whether my favorite kind of Gatorade is in stock, I’m greeted by door-length digital screens displaying images of food and drink. They beam pictures clearly designed to look like the ordinary drugstore cooler lineup—rows of sodas, flavored water, and ice cream with ever-escalating levels of candy mix-ins. I open up a door featuring a row of images of Lipton iced tea (complete with price tags and a current deal), and find rows of actual bottles of tea. The peach tea was out of stock. The screen, having sensed this, accordingly grayed out an image of the flavor.

Flashing banner ads float between the digital rows of goods. I instinctively tap one for Red Bull that features a Pac-Man zipping around—is it a game customers can play?—but the screen doesn’t respond. It just keeps on with the same two-dimensional loop.

But the futuristic cooler door is interacting with me in another way. As writers like the Atlantic’s Sidney Fussell have reported, 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. Whether being emotionally moved by a Red Bull ad prompts me to grab a can of that stimulant instead. The machines also get fed external data about things like the time of day, weather, and special events—all with the idea of testing tailored ads, and updating pricing on the fly to respond to trends.

According to a statement from the CEO of Cooler Screens—the Microsoft-backed company piloting these refrigerators of the future—the machines use this information, which they say is anonymized, to “enhance the overall consumer shopping experience in real time.” Precisely how this will play out isn’t clear (currently, many of the ads on the Cooler Screens are for the screens themselves), but I speculate a future in which I’m lingering near the Gatorade after a local half-marathon, and a dancing ad tells me I deserve a post-race treat.

As I observe the screens, I quickly realize I am being watched by a human being. She introduces herself as an employee of Cooler Screens, and then launches into ticking off a list of positive facts about them: The screens save energy, they help stores monitor inventory, they help customers with poor eyesight see inventory more clearly, they make the products “more visually appealing.”

I ask whether other Walgreens patrons she had spoken with seemed weirded out by this new innovation in their freezer aisle. (I, for one, am.) “Once you explain it to them, they pretty much get it,” she assures me. I begin to suspect Cooler Screens had put minders like her in stores to sell people on the flashy doors before anyone started to make deductions of their own.

I then ask what I really want to know: Are the screens … watching us right now? Oh, these particular screens weren’t, she said. She does acknowledge that she had seen an article that talked about the monitoring. She then said she had to look at something on her phone, and kept to herself.

As the Cooler Screens employee watches her phone, I stand there and watch the screens.

As I found out after I left, it turns out the screens were watching us back at the time (the employee likely had bad info), though it took multiple back-and-forths with the Cooler Screens PR team to get a straight, consistent answer. For customers in the store, there’s no signage disclosing the cameras are also watching and profiling.

Cooler Screens. Photo by Shannon Palus.
When past and future collide. Shannon Palus

Though we’re living in a moment where, it feels, corporations are relentlessly collecting our data, this drugstore-aisle surveillance struck me. With digital tracking, I’ve always had a sense, rightly or wrongly, that it’s at least partially the consumer’s fault: Can’t we just opt out of using Amazon or Google? (“It was hell,” says Gizmodo reporter Kashmir Hill, who tried.) Couldn’t I become the kind of person who does read the terms and conditions before signing away my data to MoviePass? But even trying to do due diligence in this one, tiny instance, was an uphill battle. Do we expect other Walgreens patrons to do the same fact checking of what a minder in store tells them? And what does opting out look like if, say, Cooler Screens make their way across America? Do I stop buying ice cream? Sure, this instance of tracking seems pretty benign. The company said in a statement they don’t use facial recognition software or store data on individuals (they’ll never know if it’s my fifth time having a stare down with Half Baked in a week—for now). But it feels emblematic of just how hard it is to understand and possibly opt out of surveillance when it’s creeping into so many parts of our lives.

What’s more, it seems like us consumers aren’t really getting anything out of this. The company’s arguments for why this helps us feel like a thin cover. As I stand there in the aisle, I watch a woman open a fridge door to rifle through some string cheese, letting cold air out, and making me question how much energy the screens really could be saving. An employee that works restocking the dairy section tells me that from his vantage point— often inside the fridge, behind the doors, putting more things on the shelves—the sensors don’t help him in his duties. He says he already has a good handle on when milk is out of stock, and, if anything, the screens make it harder for him to spot shoplifters. To him, he says, the screens seem like just a sales tactic. “Bright, flashy, attracts people,” he said. “We’re like human flies.”

As the ads keep dancing and the Cooler Screens employee continues to visibly monitor the aisle, I decide I don’t want to loiter too much longer. If these screens really are the future, I’ll have plenty more time to be under their thumb.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.