Commentary

Will We Ever Let Robots Shop For Us?

Several years ago, my family and I took a tour of Astoria, Oregon. (You’ll find it at the mouth of the Columbia River, where it empties into the Pacific.) Our guide pointed out a warehouse he said was filled with canned salmon waiting to be labeled and shipped. I asked what brand they were. His answer was “All of them. They all come from the same warehouse. The only thing different is the label.”

Ahh --  the power of branding.

Labels can make a huge difference. If you need proof, look no further than the experimental introduction of generic brands in grocery stores. Well, they were generic to begin with, anyway. But over time, the generic “yellow label” was replaced with a plethora of store brands. The quality of what’s inside the box hasn’t changed much, but the packaging has.

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We do love our brands -- but there’s often no rational reason to do so. Take the aforementioned canned salmon, for example. Same fish, no matter what label you may stick on it.

Brands are a trick our brain plays on us. We may swear our favorite brand tastes better than its competitors, but it’s usually just our brain-short circuiting our senses and our sensibility.

Neuroscientist Read Montague found this out when he redid the classic Pepsi taste test using an fMRI scanner. The result? When Coke drinkers didn’t know what they were drinking, the majority preferred Pepsi. But the minute the brand was revealed, they again swore allegiance to Coke. The taste hadn’t changed, but their brains had. As soon as the brain was aware of the brand,  it suddenly started lighting up like a pinball machine.

In previous research we did, we found that the brain instantly responded to favored brands the same way it did to a picture of a friend or a smiling face. Our brains have an instantaneous and subconscious response to brands. And because of that, our brains shouldn’t be trusted with buying decisions. We’d be better off letting a robot do that for us.

I’m not saying this facetiously. A recent post on Bloomberg.com looked forward 20 years and predicted how automation would gradually take over every step of the consumer product supply chain, from manufacturing to shipping to delivery to our door.

The post predicts that the factory floor, the warehouse, ocean liners, trucks and delivery drones will all be powered by AI and robotic labor.  The first set of human hands that might touch a product would be those of the buyer.

But maybe we’re automating the wrong side of the consumer transaction. The thing human hands shouldn’t be touching is the buy button. We suck at it.

We have taken some steps in the right direction. Itamar Simonson and Emanuel Rosen predicted a death of branding in their book "Absolute Value": “In the past the marketing function 'protected' the organization in some cases. When things like positioning, branding, or persuasion worked effectively, a mediocre company with a good marketing arm (and deep pockets for advertising) could get by. Now, as consumers are becoming less influenced by quality proxies, and as more consumers base their decisions on their likely experience with a product, this is changing.”

But our brand love dies hard. If our brain can literally rewire the evidence from our own senses, how can we possibly make rational buying decisions?  True, as Simonson and Rosen point out, we do tend to favor objective information when it’s available, but at the end of the day, our buying decisions still rely on an instrument that has proven itself unreliable in making optimal decisions under the influence of brand messaging.

If we’re prepared to let robots steer ships, drive trucks and run factories, why won’t we let them shop for us? Existing shopping bots stop well short of actually making the purchase. We’ll put our lives in the hands of AI in a myriad of ways, but we won’t hand our credit card over. Why is that?

It seems ironic to me. If there were any area where machines can beat humans, it would be in making purchases. They’re much better at filtering based on objective criteria, they can stay on top of all prices everywhere and they can instantly aggregate data from all similar types of purchases. Most importantly, machines can’t be tricked by branding or marketing. They can complete the Absolute Value loop Simonson and Rosen talk about in their book.

Of course, there’s just one little problem with all that. It essentially ends the entire marketing and advertising industry.

Oops.

1 comment about "Will We Ever Let Robots Shop For Us?".
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  1. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, November 7, 2017 at 4:03 p.m.

    Nothing new. For years, distributors have done this. Packers have done it for years, too. And importers. Some cans of peas have more water. Same peas. Humans have figured out how to beat humans since day one and now it is just more sophisticated. Faith, beliefs, 3 card monte - same stuff.

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