Algorithms Are Shaping Our Retail Experience

July 30, 2017

8:30 am

As high street stores continue to battle the rise of eCommerce and online shopping, the in-store shopping experience is becoming more high-tech.

From smart mirrors that allow you to try on clothes ‘virtually’ to mood retail softwares that build a tailored wardrobe based on an analysis of a customer’s thoughts and feelings, the shopping experience is looking ever more like a work of science fiction.

So, with tech becoming increasingly popular with the world’s biggest retail chains, are we about to see shoppers forego the traditional store browse experience, and shop by algorithms over instincts?

An Intuitive Experience

As retail solution providers OCS Retail Support explain, a new trend for experiential shopping is embracing new techniques to create “a more intuitive shopping experience.” Examples they mention include John Lewis’ in-store interactive VR trampoline experience, and Harvey Nichols’ themed collections. It’s method the retailer hopes can influence consumers on a more subliminal level: selling a lifestyle.

This is making for a revolution in mood retail: computer algorithms that analyse a customer’s mood to deliver them a personalised shopping experience.

Examples include clothing brand Finery’s In the Mood For, a browsing tool that asks online shoppers to choose between a series of visual cues to determine what mood they are in and help identify the garment that best suits their frame of mind.

Uniqlo stepped it up a notch with UMood, an in-store installation that asked visitors to wear an EEG headset to measure brain activity as they watched video clips representing different moods. An algorithm then matches that electrical brain activity to suggest relevant items of clothing.

Algorithms in Retail Are Nothing New

These kinds of shopping insights might seem new, but online algorithms based on our previous choices and actions have been tailoring our shopping experience for years now. Every time we shop or browse online, website cookies store browsing data and use this to tailor results and ads in each subsequent visit.

It’s certainly an effective re-marketing tool for online retailers, and can help us as consumers find what we’re looking for without sifting through pages of products that just aren’t to our taste. But just as social media and news sites have come to criticism for insulating users in an echo chamber of narrow-mindedness, retail sites are guilty of the same.

As one Mashable article warns, algorithms are limiting our online shopping choices and edging out opportunities to experiment with something new. “Even when services promise choice and variety, they eventually try to herd you into a more mundane existence”, the author writes. What’s more, it’s just a little bit creepy.

What if We Know What We’re Looking for?

Well, it’s not just the type of products we buy online that are subject to algorithms, but the pricing of those products too. Some online algorithms work behind the scenes distorting price points for certain products based on popularity and competitor offerings.

Most of the time, the technology optimises profit margins for online retailers in an increasingly competitive market, but that comes at the expense of retailers too. In December 2015 Amazon’s automated repricing software RepricerExpress erroneously reduced the price of thousands of items to as little as one penny or one cent. The glitch caused huge upset for small retail businesses who were unable to recoup their losses.

As retail robots become ever more advanced, we can all enjoy personal shopping at our fingertips. But when advanced data capture algorithms are at risk of exploiting our shopping habits online, we might all be safer sticking to the physical aisles after all.

Read more about artificial intelligence at TechCo

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Simon Davies is a London based freelance writer with an interest in startup culture, issues and solutions.

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