Predictive shopping: Getting you where you live

In an article, "Shopping Made Psychic" (New York Times, August 21, 2014) by Cass R. Sunstein describes a mode of shopping made new by technology.

Using the "Book of the Month" analogy, Sunstein asks if the time has come, to revive the model where you receive goods or services which you have not chosen, based on an algorithm of your habits: picture Amazon sending you the books you'd buy anyway. That's called predictive shopping. The goods are returnable and (I assume, the article doesn't say) there would be no shipping charge either way if you did not accept an order.

He undertook survey research and found, in summary, that up to 1/3 of  all respondents would welcome such a service, especially for staples, which might even be monitored remotely so the vendor knows when you're running low. 

As you'd expect, the acceptance rate rose when buyers could opt in to such a program, and was far more popular among youth, with an up to 40% approval rating for the idea of receiving regular, recurring deliveries initiated by a selected vendor.

Sunstein writes, "It suggests the possibility that among younger people, enthusiasm is growing for predictive shopping, especially for routine goods where shopping is an annoyance and a distraction. For such goods, predictive shopping promises to be liberating..."

Just send a pair yearly!
I also see elders as a market. Since my wardrobe is 85% predictable, a vendor could send me two pairs of jeans every fall, with advance notice and suggestions of complementary items (sweetened by a discount) I might add to the shipment. 

Once begun, why stop? I'm only going to get older. I think of my mother's friends in their 70s and 80s, still keenly interested in clothes, but unable to make the rounds of stores or even cope with repeated trips to the change room. 

Those Depression-era women would have been suspicious of unbidden purchases, but my generation, softened by internet shopping, are ripe for the plucking. Just like credit cards, predictive shopping is a consumption-enabler par excellence. 

Could you say no?
I wondered, Could I turn away a prettily-packed box I didn't order? It would feel almost rude, like refusing a hostess who's just served whipped cream on my berries.
(Photo courtesy of issabellathecat, who blogs about her spectacular quilts.)

Big data has already come a-courting; the path has been laid via flash sales, "members-only" sites like Groupon, the "other shoppers bought" feature on Amazon, and those creepy ads that pop up when you're booking a plane ticket—for the very shoes you were ogling on Net-a-porter.

Caveat (pre)emptor.


Other than the fact that this can contribute to mindless consumption, I see another drawback in the way it would keep people from getting out of the house, in particular pensioners and people who work at home. I've never seen buying dish soap as a burden, but that is also because we can easily do it on foot in this neighbourhood.

Speaking of which, what a sunrise!
Susan B said…
It's an intriguing idea. We joined a couple of "wine clubs" at wineries we visited in 2010, and receive shipments a few times per year with an option to decline any shipment. It means we always have some nice wine in the house in case company drops by ;-). I've tried subscribing on amazon for items like dish soap, but often if they contract out to other vendors I stop getting shipments when those vendors run out or go out of business.

Can't say that I'd want this for clothes, though. I still like to shop for clothing and accessories, frankly, and doing so often gives me ideas of how to make new outfits from pieces I already own.
Anonymous said…
Oh no. I'm terrible at returning things that don't suit, and the idea of things arriving unordered, boxes multiplying like the Sorcerer's Apprentice's broomsticks, induces nothing but anxiety. "Free returns" are rarely trouble-free; there there are forms to fill out, and certain shippers must be used within a certain time; sometimes they won't pick up boxes, so you must get to the nearest office, etc. I suspect that many people--especially the housebound--end up keeping things they don't like. (Think of all those unread Books-of-the-Month!) That's why purveyors like the Predictive Shopping model so much.

LPC said…
This has become a whole business category for beauty products, with Birchbox etc. Granted, they are shipping samples, but they arrive regularly, as I understand it, and look to match recipient with brand.
materfamilias said…
Well, I've had my Kobo for three or four years, so far, bought perhaps 50 books on it during that time, and I'd hate to depend on their idea of what I'd like. The problem, to be fair, is that I generally prefer to buy paper versions of books I intend to savour, e-versions of those I'm more likely to see as disposable, although when impatient for a new "literary" novel, I'd e-book that as well. But the predictive software seems so very far from "getting" me -- and they don't know my history, what I already have, etc. Plus I love what random serendipity offers me. . . .I'm not at all convinced that the subtleties of the idiosyncratic get captured by algorithms, although they def. get the broad strikes and then some. . . And I'm atrocious at the efficiencies of return. Atrocious!
LauraH said…
Hmmmm. How viable would a service like this be for singles? The organic food box services are more suited for families, too much for me to use up. I'm sure there is a market for predictive shopping, it will be interesting to see how this idea expands over the next decade.

I too find the pop up ads so creepy that I am now running the Disconnect and AdBlock apps on my laptop - stops the trackers and the annoying ads.
Dr. V.O. said…
Hm I can see some usefulness...but... I share C's vision of "boxes multiplying like Sorcerer's Apprentice broomsticks." I think if we dig under the story we might detect that the "need" for this model is actually coming from businesses, who may be anxious about the rise of shoppers' exhaustion, "decision fatigue" from product option overload (yes, it's a thing), and also the rise of simplicity culture as an antidote to consumption growth. Predictive shopping seems like it preserves and grows the market rather than people's lives. It also reminds me of the movie/story Minority Report, and the use of a predictive "future crime" squad. You can count me out my dear, I'm still opting for preserving a sense of personal self control, and basic human "unpredictability," in an increasingly Orwellian world.
I like to shop in local boutiques and shops.
I prefer to try things on as sizing is so unpredictable and I really don't like wasting money returning packages. The only exception to this is a few annual purchases from Lands' End.

I don't think I represent the trend of shopping online...I'm old fashioned in that I like to chat with the clerks and now that I am retired I have the time.
I use StitchFix delivered very couple of months for clothes. My 90 yr old mother wanted to sign up but felt it might cater to a younger group. I think this is VERY RIPE opportunity for elders who want to dress nicely but find it difficult to get out.
Duchesse said…
lagatta: If it's only dish soap, yes, and as we age, heavier items will be a problem.

unecfemme: Now there is the thin edge of the wedge, I'd join that too. A retired person has time to think and decline an unwanted shipment.

C.: A funny image. Obviously they think the idea has potential.

LPC: some of those samples-shippers have made it and one has gone out of business leaving subscribers burnt. I would join a perfume-only one.

materfamilias: They often get it wrong for me, too. But I love to think about what I never dreamed would exist when I was young. Books appearing instantly on a reader- never in my dreams!

Dr. V.O, : Is it hard to imagine a time when we can no longer trot through malls or boutiques? It is kind of Orwellian... maybe they will fare better by offering a menu, and we would select.

hstess: I have been on the receiving end of remarks by sales persons (in my work with retailers) about how retired women talk their ear off, so you are lucky to have ones who enjoy your chats.

NN Bartely: Well I'll be! Thank you for introducing me to this site. If they shipped to Canada I would try it, just for the experience. Fascinating concept.
Everyone, see

Jill Ann said…
I shop online for certain things: tall-length pants for my 6' tall daughter, gifts for friends and family who live out of town, books on my Kindle. In thinking about this topic, I thought that since I'm retired, I have the time to go to the shops or to the mall, and touch, feel, try on clothes. Them I realized that when I worked full time and had two small children, I still squeezed out time to shop in person (although online options WERE fewer 15 years ago). I have a friend who buys EVERYTHING on Amazon. Fine for her, but I really enjoy going out and window shopping the high end brands, looking at the fabrics, colors, and styles, figuring out what I can afford and what works in my wardrobe. I also love browsing bookstores!
frugalscholar said…
I agree with Lagatta. My mother craves opportunities to get out and interact and shopping is one way she does that.

The very rich already have such services. A grande dame of a nearby town received regular visits with merchandise from the owner of the tiny local department store. And recently, I ran into a neighbor mailing a refrigerator sized box. She had taken a job as personal assistant to a very rich woman. Neiman Marcus regularly sent clothing for the woman to try on. In the box: $32,000 of designer clothing being returned! Wonder what she kept???
frugalscholar said…
I agree with Lagatta. My mother craves opportunities to get out and interact and shopping is one way she does that.

The very rich already have such services. A grande dame of a nearby town received regular visits with merchandise from the owner of the tiny local department store. And recently, I ran into a neighbor mailing a refrigerator sized box. She had taken a job as personal assistant to a very rich woman. Neiman Marcus regularly sent clothing for the woman to try on. In the box: $32,000 of designer clothing being returned! Wonder what she kept???
Anonymous said…
Lately, I've found that I limit my in-person shopping to stores that I actually enjoy shopping in-- and that's not a lot of stores! Most of our local stores have terrible customer service and shoddy merchandise; shopping in them is more of a chore than a pleasant outing.

I haven't resorted to buying everything from Amazon, but I do have scheduled deliveries of my favorite tea, and I'm looking at what else I can have sent to my front porch. And if they weren't so expensive, I'd probably subscribe to meal delivery services.

But predictive shopping where they choose the products for me? No thanks. Most web sites that offer "suggestions" of any product or entertainment don't accurately predict my interests.
Beth said…
Horrors!! (Amusing post, though!) Working all day in a studio and online, I crave contact and chitchat, and hope I'll always have reasons to get out of the house and interact with real people. Although it's convenient and fast, I still think it's sad how automated many everyday interactions have already become, from buying gas for our cars to going to the bank. I remember the small town where I grew up and the way people interacted and actually cared about each other; each person was part of the fabric of the town's life. p.s. thanks for the link to isabellasquilts -- I've just spent a happy half hour looking at anna maria horner fabrics: online, of course, since no Montreal shops carry them!

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