The Next Evolution of Online Shopping Is Letting a Bot Buy You Underwear

Illustration for article titled The Next Evolution of Online Shopping Is Letting a Bot Buy You Underwear
Photo: Andy Wong (AP)

Online retailers are engaged in a constant, all-consuming quest to make the process of buying stuff ever faster and more efficient and to remove as many barriers between you and the final click-confirmed purchase as possible. Amazon has experimented with IRL ‘dash’ buttons that automatically order you more detergent or diapers. Smaller retailers like Blue Bottle have pushed subscription models that let you elect to have your coffee delivered monthly.


So it should hardly come as a surprise that marketers are beginning to push something closer to full-blown automated shopping—wherein retailers simply send you goods you might want based on your past preferences, without you ever having to do anything so laborious as clicking buttons on menus on a website. According to the latest market research, this is exactly what a lot of consumers say they want.

A new report from the marketing technology company Blis claims that 60 percent of the consumers they surveyed are receptive to automated shopping. Some 41 percent would let an online retailer automatically buy and ship them things like dish soap and cleaning products. Over 20 percent would let retailers’ systems pick out their underwear.

“Large numbers of people are willing to have household basic products, groceries and even clothing basics shipped to them automatically,” the report notes, but underlines the finding that “mid-range items like leisure clothes, shoes and even high-end items like jewelry receive meaningful interest, suggesting there is a large chunk of the population that values convenience above all other factors, and is willing to sacrifice consumer choice for convenience for even medium-to-large purchases.”

One in 10 people would apparently have jewelry automatically selected, purchased, and sent to them, for the sake of said convenience.

Unsurprisingly, the receptivity to automated shopping, which would take the form of expanded digital retail subscription services, is highest among the younger demographic—81 percent of the 25-34 cohort said they were open to automated shopping. Among that group, the report notes, “men are more happy to skip the shopping trip for clothing basics like socks and underwear (42%), shoes (35%) and working clothes (21%). Women are more hesitant on these categories, with 30%, 25% and 12% respectively.”

Now, this kind of market research is often not exceedingly scientific, but this report does offer an intriguing glimpse at where online shopping trends are probably headed. It’s not surprising that people would want to turn over the process of shopping for necessities to automated shopping services, and it’s not hard to see companies offering programs that minimally remix your biweekly grocery orders like a daily Spotify mix, or push to auto-deliver your socks in the mail twice a year or whatever. *Some* of this does seem surprising—isn’t the whole point of picking out jewelry or accessories to cut a style that’s distinctly yours—but then again, not. If the price is right, at least there will be another one along in the mail soon.


The obvious concern here is that this could amp up indiscriminate consumption at a moment when we should be focusing our efforts on sustainability—and it would also be more than a little ironic if the evolution of capitalism, supposedly the bastion of infinite economic choice, led us to a juncture where faceless conglomerates were assigning our goods to us and sending them to our homes. Still, people seem to be on board.

“Automated shopping is an increasing trend among a large segment of the population,” Gil Larsen, a vice president at Blis, told the trade site MartechSeries. “Retailers need to be taking this lesson to heart across all their channels, exploring the data around consumer purchases and lifestyles and seeking ways to build out automated processes both online and in-store.”


Behold, the rise of self-buying carts.


You mentioned that this research isn’t scientific, but I think it goes beyond this. I’ve worked with a ton of tech companies, and anytime you see the questions they ask you realize how much they misinterpret what people actually want.

It’s the difference between saying we should grab lunch sometime and we should grab lunch today. Theoretically people are interested, but realisticly it’s not what they want.

This is akin to those loot boxes. Half the stuff is useless. Automate it to a point to let the user remove items, or say no altogether, but we’re 50 years off at least from AI being able to do this in a way that a majority of people legitimately like.