Changing habits in online shopping – smart homes, IoT & automated shopping

In the past. The oldendays. You know, that bricks and mortar world in which the corporeal and the incorporeal were much less, well, combined, we would do things like create lists, and go to the shops to buy the things on those lists.

In the more recent past, the supermarket made this a relatively streamlined experience, doing away with the need to go to several shops and putting the whole experience under one roof.

Then came the internet, and the advent of online shopping, where our shopping experience could be organised from home. We could browse, and shop, from home.

And then there comes shopping automation and machine learning… which is the next wave of change. At this stage, shopping will move from the synchronous experience – where we would create a list based on “what we need” and then “go to the shop(s)” – to the asynchronous, where our fridge may know when we’re “running low” and add an item to a list to be ordered. Or, more, actually place an order.

Our habits can determine how often we need to order certain items, too. Got a baby? 4 months old. Use size 4 nappies? You use 138 of these a week. Actually, through the Internet of Things, your Smart Bin might be able to determine exactly how many nappies you are churning through. Yuck. But also, yay! My tired parent’s brain has one less thing to think about. No more late night journey’s to the double priced convenience store.

The primary change of habits which will take place in the connected and automated stores of the future will be a paradigm shift. We will not need “habits”. Our shopping (might) be largely done “for us” as we consume and have replaced a regular batch of items.

Moreover, your smart scales knows how much your baby weighs. The BabyTracker App knows how tall your baby is. You won’t need to tell us when your baby goes from size 4 to size 5 nappies, because we’ll already know. In fact, there’s a shipment of them already on its way. On a drone. Ready to be dropped into the dedicated delivery space at your house, securely, even though you’re out.

Science fiction? Science certainty. We’re already well past half way to this world.

But what of creativity! I like to have flair in my shopping!

But what of Privacy! I don’t want that much data held on me and my habits!

What of Security! My fridge will need some kind of firewall to prevent data hacking on a large scale!

There are a range of issues which will need to be addressed by the stores of the future. Not just the shops themselves, either, also the Things (from the Internet of Things) which will likely be feeding them with data upon which to base your “you might also like…” selections.

Most of the questions raised are ethical.

But some of the most interesting – I find – are philosophical too. For example, when our smart homes are telling us what to buy all the time, will this make us more stupid (we don’t need to think about things any more) or more intelligent (we don’t need to concern ourselves with trivial things any more)?

Our homes will be buzzing so our minds won’t have to. Humans are built to retain information about where their food comes from, how removing these elements of choice and decision from us will affect the way we operate will be very interesting.

Certainly, smart homes, the Internet of Things and online shops combining to the maximum of their potential would be incredibly sticky. It would be awfully hard to change your grocery provider, for example, if your fridge has signed an agreement with store A only to push data their way.

Neutrality and the open web will have a lot to say here.

With convenience, customers will know they are losing some choice. Just as with those late-night-nappies, the customer knows they will pay a premium for there being only one shop open, so too will the locked in customer need to feel the value of their data is outweighed by the convenience of “having it done for you”. Its likely this will be a two way street: locked into a contract to gain freedoms in terms of time saved.

And so we come to the subscriptions model.

It is my belief that most of our shopping will be done through subscriptions. Already we have curated subscriptions for all kinds of things, from coffees to “mens boxes” (ties, socks and whatnot), to fairytales, being subscribed to, in curated collections, which are sent out weekly, fortnightly, monthly or once every lunar cycle.

This model is worth thinking more about. We already have it with smart phones, really, where the device is effectively hired in the form of a 12, 18 or (most often) 24 month contract which includes minutes and etc in a bundle.

This will make a lot of sense in the electrical goods markets, where replacement equipment comes along at a rapid rate, making the car industry’s PCP (Personal Contract Purchase) model look increasingly sensible for “large items” and white goods in the home.

Smart fridge, big screen TV, latest iteration games console, smart washing machine, smart dishwasher, smart bin… etc etc etc. All of these might be wrapped in a monthly fee, and provided by the supermarket of the future.

And then we come to the actual items which are “consumed”. A monthly (or weekly) fee for these would basically match the current situation. Most shoppers buy broadly speaking the same items each month – save a few little extra items (like the aforementioned coffee and socks!).

In the future, we could plug in our likes and dislikes – and not by mindlessly ticking boxes, either – as our smart TV, web browser and phone track our entertainment habits to determine what we like and what this might mean about our other product choices.

Our smart home will be able to buy us better presents than our friends and family, because, you know, it will really know us. These monthly subscription boxes are really gifts we’re sending ourselves, anyway, right?!

So how the mundane, consumable, 80-90% of our weekly shop items are fed into the mix with the little extras will be really interesting. The little extras will be pulled from a profile of likes and dislikes that will really be well aggregated across other people like us. By this point in time, the supermarket, with its machine learning and data, will in all likelihood be better at choosing a partner for us, too, so add dating to the list of things our fridge will be able to help with.

Which leads us to the warning shots again. In the future, we will pay with a slice of our privacy for a large dollop of convenience. We’ll gain time by sacrificing a little of our autonomy and freedom to choose.

But did we really want to choose; or do we merely choose because there is a choice to be made? Further, we maybe choose because our parents chose before us; and therefore its what we know. Its what we are comfortable with.

Making people become comfortable with choices made on their behalf by an algorithm will be a major challenge in the transition from synchronous to asynchronous shopping.

It will be an interesting journey.

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