Brain or Bot – Who Decides What We Buy?

It’s the same every week – decisions, decisions, decisions! Cucumber or tomatoes? Cheap or organic? But what if personalized software were soon to make shopping easier for all of us? Self-teaching computer assistants, so-called bots, are about to change our consumer behaviour dramatically.

The customer is always right, and every trick in the book is used to grab their attention, from shop windows and malls meticulously arranged by food and fashion designers to Hollywood-style advertising. But what will happen when it’s no longer human beings but bots that decide what to buy? Bots, data-driven, self-teaching computer programs, are poised to help consumers make purchases and choose services. As smartphone apps, the bots, digital assistants trained to recognise our wishes and preferences, could soon be autonomously ordering groceries for delivery to our homes or booking our next train ticket or flight via voice control. "In as little as three to five years, bots will replace today’s service apps – and turn our familiar patterns of consumption on their head," predicts Yoav Barel, CEO of the international Chatbot Summit. And he recommends: "Businesses should make bots a key element of their digital strategy as soon as possible."

The expert Yoav Barel

"In just three to five years, bots will replace today's service apps and turn our familiar consumer patterns upside down," said Yoav Barel, CEO of the International Chatbot Summit
© Niv Kantor

"Social media platforms are crucial for bots"

It will be the Internet platforms with most relevance to the practicalities of everyday life that will be crucial in facilitating the proliferation of consumer-relevant bots, according to the Tel Aviv-based expert. "Messenger services such as WhatsApp and Facebook will no doubt play a pivotal role," says Barel, alluding to the two billion or so people worldwide expected to use social media channels in 2018. One example of what cooperation with Facebook could look like is Lufthansa’s chatbot "Mildred". The text-based dialogue system can be integrated into Facebook Messenger to help passengers book flights efficiently - and automatically advise them on how to take advantage of any special offers that are available. Other notable examples of the potential the new technology holds in store for the shopping experience of the future are the bots used by floral and gourmet foods gift retailer 1800 Flowers and the cosmetics chain Sephora, which are also integrated into Facebook Messenger.

Gut or bot sweets

What happens when no more people, but machines make the final purchase decision?
© Martin Barraud/Getty Images

"Brands must win over consumers at an even earlier stage"

The success of bots can be put down to the enormous strides that have been made in data-based natural language processing. Regardless of whether the communication is text based, as with chatbots, or voice controlled, as in the case of Apple’s Siri, what matters most is that the machine can identify the preferences of the human user as accurately as possible and transform these into autonomous actions.

So when increasingly sophisticated bots begin to influence our behaviour as consumers, the bots themselves will have to be acknowledged as a target group in marketing and brand building, insists Yoav Barel. "Brands will have to win over consumers at an even earlier stage, ideally before they start training their bots. Equally important will be new digital advertising strategies tailored to the needs of the bots." Just as every consumer is unique, muses Barel, so too is every bot. While some stick religiously to locally grown organic tomatoes, others are happy to go for the cheapest offers all year round. And then there are those whose allergies prevent them from enjoying tomatoes of any sort. Instead, every Friday, regular as clockwork, they plump for cucumber.



Header picture: © Tara Moore/Getty Images