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Cooler Screens is bringing the digital shopping experience to brick-and-mortar stores

30-second summary:

  • Cooler Screens is a Chicago startup that combines retail product merchandising with digital technology to deliver relevant in-store shopping experiences that mimic contextually relevant online shopping experiences.
  • Cooler Screens technology works by embedding smart screens into glass cooler doors. The screens are equipped with IoT sensors and other technology, enabling them to function as both merchandising and advertising platforms.
  • Cooler Screens is an “identity blind” technology that does not collect personal information from consumers. Media is served using sensors that detect shoppers’ physical proximity to the cooler combined with external factors such as weather, location, and time of day which provide contextual relevance to what a shopper sees on the screen.
  • The Cooler Screens ecosystem includes retail partners, the brand partners, and technology partners such as Microsoft that power screen and cooler functionality.
  • Walgreens was a founding retail partner and they are currently rolling out the technology into 2500 stores. this will ultimately enable the platform to reach 75 to 80 million consumers, with additional retail partners planned for onboarding in 2020.
  • On average, retailers that have implemented the digital screens have seen sales in the cooler aisle increase by 50 to 100 percent. For brands that leverage the media network, sales lift can be two to ten times higher than this.

Example of Cooler Screens installed in the cooler aisle of a store

Cooler Screens is a Chicago-based startup that was founded in 2017 by a group of business executives with combined experience in the CPG space.

These include Arsen Avakian, the founder and former CEO of Argo Tea, Glen Tullman, founder of Livongo (a diabetes management platform), Greg Wasson, the former CEO of Walgreens and Jamie Koval, formerly of VSA Partners, a global creative agency.

Cooler Screens combines retail product merchandising with digital technology to deliver a contextually relevant shopping experience for consumers in brick-and-mortar stores.

They do this via the use of smart screens embedded in cooler doors within the stores themselves. The screens also serve as a digital ad platform for brands who can buy ads of various types and sizes which appear on the screens as people shop.

Here are a few examples of the ads that are currently available:

From left to right: full door ad, multi-door (wall) ad, banner and middle hotspot ads—source: Cooler Screens

ClickZ recently spoke with Cooler Screens’ co-founder, Arsen Avakian, to learn more about how this fascinating new technology works for retailers, brands, and shoppers.

Identifying a need for a better shopping experience

With more than fifteen years as a CPG brand owner, and nearly ten years of IT experience before that, Avakian was in a unique position to identify a need for better in-store shopping experiences for consumers.

“My consumer and technology background, combined, gave me the insight to recognize a problem in the cooler aisle,” says Avakian. “I spent many hours in cooler aisles trying to sell more tea and witnessed an extremely disappointing consumer experience. Products were mislabeled, mismatched, or missing very basic information.”

To Avakian, it seemed like the retail store was stuck in the past, lagging behind online shopping experiences that have created very different expectations for consumers. He saw an opportunity to completely reimagine CX in the brick and mortar environment, bringing consumers what they love about shopping online into the store.

“We start in the cooler aisle by replacing the old glass cooler doors with new digital smart doors or smart screens with a merchandising platform built in,” explains Avakian. “The platform seamlessly integrates into the existing retail environment, so that consumers can instantly and easily access the most relevant and up-to-date information just as if they were online.”

Avakian and his team have been thrilled with the consumer response to the new technology. In a recent third-party customer experience survey, over 90% of consumer respondents indicated that they preferred the digital screen experience over the traditional shopping experience.

What Cooler Screens is (and what it isn’t)?

From a technology perspective, Cooler Screens are basically very large smart screens or “super ipads” as Avakian put it, embedded into glass cooler doors. They essentially turn the cooler aisle into the world’s first and largest in-store digital merchandising and a media platform.

Full door ads appear when no one is in the cooler aisle, attracting attention as people pass by the aisle.

When sensors embedded in the screens detect a person in the aisle, the merchandising kicks in and the products within the cooler are displayed on the screen.

The smart screens contain AI technology and IoT sensors that combine information about consumer behavior with external events (e.g., weather, sporting events, time of day) so brands can promote their products in a contextually relevant way.

Says Avakian, “For the first time, brands can directly engage consumers in the store, increasing their sales and market share by delivering the right offerings and messages at the right time, in the right place, and to the right audiences.”

Avakian clarified that consumer privacy is an absolute priority for Cooler Screens. We’ll get more into privacy in a bit, but for now I will simply say that the company does not collect any personal information from consumers.

They take an “identity blind” approach, meaning that targeting and messaging is achieved using consumer behavioral signs combined with external signals such as weather, time of day, and other factors.

“The sensors detect the consumer, where they walk, if they pause in front of the ice cream door or pass by,” explains Avakian. “We look at the dwell times, the weather, current news and events and based on all the internal and external signals, we create a shopping experience that is very contextually relevant.”

From a practical perspective, what this means is that if a storm is coming and it’s cold outside, the consumer may see an ad for frozen pizza and other “hunkering down” types of foods versus an ice cream ad.

Likewise, if someone is browsing the cooler aisle at 6 a.m., a Chobani yogurt ad may appear since it’s more relevant for someone looking for a quick breakfast than, say, a beer ad.

The Cooler Screens ecosystem

The Cooler Screens ecosystem is driven by three key components:

  • Retail partners (e.g., the stores themselves)
  • Brand partners (e.g., the products)
  • Technology partners (e.g., Microsoft and Verizon)

Retail partners: From the start, the co-founders of Cooler Screens understood the need to partner with smart retailers.

“Ninety percent of total retail sales are still in brick and mortar stores,” says Avakian, “Once we realized that our mission and business was potentially greater than we could accomplish ourselves, we partnered—and continue to partner with—some of the smartest leading retailers.”

Cooler Screens’ launch partner was Walgreens. The pharmacy chain is in the process of rolling out Cooler Screens into 2500 stores over the next twelve months.

Retailers go through a business and financial planning process with Cooler Screens to decide how to roll out the platform.

It’s a fairly simple process that involves replacing the old cooler doors with the new smart digital screens, digitization of their Planograms (representations of the store’s inventory for the display screen), products, pricing, out of stock inventory management and other features that retailers benefit from operationally.

Brand partners: On the media platform side, Cooler Screens was able to engage over 20 large CPG brands to test ads and targeting. As the platform grows, more brands are participating in the advertising platform.

“Over 75 to 80 million consumers will engage on our platform,” explains Avakian. “With that kind of scale, both large and small CPG brands will have the opportunity to participate in our marketplace, where they can tell their brand story to the consumer while driving results and performance.”

Technology partners: The technology partners power the AI, cloud, IoT, digital refrigeration, security, connectivity and other infrastructure that makes the coolers work as both a merchandising and a marketing engine.

The Cooler Marketplace

A visual representation of the Cooler Marketplace

Brands that are being sold in Walgreens and other retailer partner stores can start monetizing the media platform by buying advertising from Cooler Screens directly.

“Brands can buy ads programmatically on our platform just like they would on Google or Facebook,” says Avakian. “They can target their messaging geographically, by time of day, based on events, etc.”

Brands get real time data and analytics to measure performance and can do A/B testing by targeting different markets based on product preferences, messaging and pricing.

“The content is like a chameleon,” says Avakian, “It adjusts to be contextually relevant for the individual environment and consumer target.”

Brands that aren’t partners—meaning they don’t advertise on the platform—still benefit from Cooler Screens being in the store. Category management decisions are a private relationship between the retailer and the brand.

Retailers go through their category management decisions, deciding which sku’s to carry without Cooler Screens’ involvement.

“It’s a decision between the retailers and the brands,” says Avakian, “We digitize the content on the brand for free, but if the brand wants to promote their product on the screens, they can participate in the ad marketplace.”

The impact of Cooler Screens

On average, retailers that have implemented Cooler Screens have increased their sales by somewhere between 50 to 100 percent for the cooler section. Avakian explained that all brands—even those not advertising on the platform—appear to be benefiting from this technology.

“Once we digitize, we nearly double same store sales for the digital coolers versus non digital coolers,” says Avakian. “When brands participate in the media, they see sales lift anywhere from two to ten times higher for same store sales.”

Part of why all brands benefit from a lift in sales is that Cooler Screens are eye catching even when consumers are not in the cooler aisle. Full door ads play when no one is directly in front of the screens, and those full screen takeovers visually attract consumers to enter the cooler aisle.

Then, once a consumer enters the aisle, proximity and motion sensors immediately flip from those big ads into a Planogram merchandising view displaying digital shelves with every brand’s product in place.

“We create democratization where smaller brands can still tell their story in a smaller way, says Avakian. “Ad products at lower CPMs can convey certain relevant information such as a product is non-GMO and organic, versus more expensive full-screen ads at a $20 CPM which may be more relevant for larger brands like Coke who want to take market share from Pepsi.”

A final word on privacy

The emphasis that Cooler Screens places on consumer privacy is worth a final mention, particularly because there’s been some inconsistency in how their technology is represented by the press.

To reiterate, the company does not collect any personal consumer data. The screens don’t use any other type of personally identifiable data such as facial recognition or cookies.

Explains Avakian, “We think there is a way to give consumers a digital experience without compromising privacy. To achieve that, we built privacy into all aspects of our technology and operating model from the beginning.”

The identity blind approach, as noted above, doesn’t rely on capturing personal data and linking it to individual buyers to make money.

This concept isn’t original to Cooler Screens, but is part of the global Privacy by Design movement, an emerging global industry standard for consumer privacy, which largely influenced Europe’s recent GDPR regulations.

Privacy by Design considers consumer privacy protection from the beginning and throughout the entire engineering process.

“When we learned about Privacy by Design as a global industry framework that was developed by privacy advocates, we decided to make a formal commitment to this process,” says Avakian.

“We are the first digital retail technology platform to make that commitment and become certified in Privacy by Design. We have been very fortunate to take that leading ambassadorship role to the next level by inviting the founder of Privacy by Design, the former three term commissioner in Canada of Privacy and Security, Dr. Ann Cavoukian to join our advisory board.”

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