Arsen Avakian brings hard-to-beat energy and enthusiasm to everything he does. After earning his bachelor’s in computer science at the State Engineering University of Armenia, he landed a Fulbright scholarship. He came to the U.S. to earn his MBA from Roosevelt University.
Working in IT for several years, Avakian frequently found himself drinking tea in airports as he plugged away at his laptop. From the very first, however, he couldn’t help but notice how thoroughly unsatisfying the default American tea experience had become.
So he set out to fix that. Along with a friend from his childhood and a former coworker, Avakian founded Argo Tea in late 2002. The company has since grown to include cafe experiences in major cities and bottled teas at select grocery chains. In 2017, he became the co-founder and CEO of Cooler Screens, a company providing translucent cooler doors capable of delivering embedded video promotions and other IoT-enabled functionalities.
So, in this case, the word “cooler” is both literal and descriptive.
Cooler Screens technology is transforming consumer expectations and bringing digital media to spaces that previously served only to keep products refrigerated. The advanced retail experience has begun making its way into major chains such as Walgreens, prompting both customer delight and a fair amount of initial confusion. For his part, Avakian and his team are excited to be part of a new age in retailing that merges digital technology with everyday experiences.
Jeff Fromm: What trends are you seeing with Gen Z consumers that will change retail forever?
Arsen Avakian: Gen Z—the first generation to be digital natives—is true to their birthright: They’re incredibly diverse, tech-savvy, and spend over eight hours online daily via their laptops and phones. Yet paradoxically, even though they’re digital natives most of them—81%—still like shopping in stores.
When they hit brick-and-mortar retail, 86% of these young shoppers are after special promotions, free samples, and giveaways, and 43% also want discounts, which are an essential factor in their purchasing decisions. Over two-thirds are more inclined to shop at physical stores with technology-enhanced shopping experiences and tech that lessens their time waiting in line.
They also don’t like searching for products and want tech that can streamline the process. And while the great majority of Gen Z shoppers—by some counts up to 80% —use Instagram or other social media for product discovery, about two-thirds prefer shopping at brick-and-mortar stores when trying out new things.
In all transactions, over 60% place a high value on data privacy and are worried about how companies use their personal data. So, identity-blind technology will be vital to them, especially since their buy-in will be critical to the success of every product and service as Gen Z matures in the next decade and takes over the economy.
To hold their interest and make sales, retailers must find creative ways to engage with this digitally native generation across multiple platforms—especially brick-and-mortar retail.
Fromm: How have you changed your marketing strategy (or technology) to reach Gen Z consumers?
Avakian: Our technology digitizes physical retail, offers brands and retailers the opportunity to communicate with anyone in a brick-and-mortar setting, and is constantly evolving to meet the expectations of the digitally-savvy Gen Z consumer.
The Cooler Screens platform is programmed to meet consumer needs by providing relevant content at the intersection of context, content, and commerce. Gen Z must continuously produce creative and compelling content to meet shopper expectations and keep them engaged as their wants and needs change and evolve.
Fromm: What post-pandemic shifts in consumer behavior are you seeing?
Avakian: We’ve tracked some data that’s not only fun to know but has surprised us.
While it is still true that 90% of purchases are made in-store, and 87% of U.S. shoppers make impulse purchases, we’ve found that post-pandemic, we are seeing a shift in what goes in their baskets. Pre-pandemic, they preferred food and grocery purchases. Post-pandemic, cleaning supplies account for most impulse purchases. Retailers and brands using Cooler Screens can use our technology to target consumers while selecting brands and making purchases in-store.
But overall, COVID has caused (and is causing) a profound human shift. People have changed. They’re looking at different ways of thinking and living.
This shift is unstoppable, like opening a bottle of champagne. Once you pop the cork and the froth bubbles over, you can’t stuff it back in. The same is true of the concept of “returning to the office.” In truth, it’s a “return to human interaction and life,” as Rishad Tobaccowala, former Publicis Groupe chief growth officer, noted at our recent 2022 Innovation Summit.
When we return to life and embrace human interaction wholly again, we will not return the same way. Retailers and brands must meet this reality. Our expectations have been shaped irrevocably by the digitized experiences we came to rely on during the pandemic. Retailers must innovate the in-store consumer experience to meet these increased expectations.
But they must also differentiate themselves from their competitors. By digitizing physical retail, Cooler Screens lets retailers and brands do this by digitizing the in-person experience. It offers retailers and brands the best path forward to innovate and meet elevated consumer expectations.
Fromm: The retail media industry is in its infancy. How do you see it evolving?
Avakian: Today, information is king. It’s the most vital resource globally and offers consumers a path to empowerment. People crave unfettered access to good information to guide their decision-making. Their robust online experiences have shaped and elevated their expectations and behavior over the past two years.
While it isn’t hard for brands and retailers to provide all this information online, it’s more challenging in physical stores. Yet it’s not enough for physical retailers to be “just as good” as online retailers. They must be better. That’s where physical retail will change the equation for brick-and-mortar stores. At our recent 2022 Innovation Summit, Neil Stern, CEO of Good Food Holdings, said, “If the physical experience isn’t better—why go at all?”
For these reasons, physical retail will remain ubiquitous and indispensable. At times, it may meet with consumer resistance. After all, “while the use and application of technology have become near-ubiquitous…the actual adoption of new and emerging technologies…continues to be less than optimal,” Harvard Business Review noted. Yet new technologies such as retail media—which by design constantly evolves to meet consumers’ wants and needs—are essential to spurring economic growth and meeting consumer needs. They will become a foundational part of the in-store buying process over time.
‘Infancy’ Brings Unparalleled Opportunity
Just as the possibilities for children are limitless at birth, so with any new medium. As consumers emerge from two years of increased solitude, they seek the human-to-human interactions previously afforded by shopping excursions. And yet, as Avakian points out, their expectations for the experience have been irreversibly transformed.
Retail media experiences will only continue evolving and breaking new ground as those post-pandemic expectations become increasingly apparent. Just as Avakian brought disruption to his airport tea-drinking routine, Cooler Screens promises to bring many Gen Z expectations to fruition in traditional settings previously untouched by digital media.