“We Don’t Serve Their Kind Here”

Retailers’ increasingly complex relationship with automated shopping

David Kerrigan
Jul 20, 2020 · 7 min read

There’s a famous scene in the original Star Wars movie where the bartender tells Luke “We don’t serve their kind here”, pointing to his droids (top). In The Mandalorian, set about 10 years later, the bartender at the same location is a droid (bottom):

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Images: © Lucasfilm/Disney
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Are robots the enemy of ecommerce?

We may still be a few years away from the anthropomorphic walking, talking robot companions of Star Wars, but robo-shopping is already here. And that’s a problem; few of the traditional retailers who have struggled to meet their human customers online are ready for roboshoppers. Most websites are explicitly set up to not serve robotic visitors; web site owners go to great lengths to stop automated ‘bots’ from accessing their sites.

But why might they fear this cohort of customers? Already, some 50% of visits to a website may actually be from automated sources, not humans. Historically, these have been viewed as an annoyance and potentially injurious to the site, engaging in activities including:

  • Posting fake reviews
  • Creating fake user accounts
  • Polluting actual visitor data (rendering analytics useless)
  • Overwhelming customer support channels with queries
  • Scraping prices and stock information
  • Degrading site performance
  • Bulk Purchasing of restricted or limited items
  • Account Takeover/Hijack attempts

There’s an entire sub-industry of software solutions to stop automated bots. Market-leader reCAPTCHA is used by more than 5m websites and according to its owner Google: “reCAPTCHA uses an advanced risk analysis engine and adaptive challenges to keep automated software from engaging in abusive activities on your site”. Most of us have encountered the annoying versions of this technology that ask you to click on all the images that contain traffic lights rather than letting us shop. The latest iteration of the technology, reCAPTCHA V3, is invisible to users — it works by ranking a visitor on a scale, leaving the web site owners to decide how to respond to a low score that’s likely a bot.

But simply blocking automated visitors is fast becoming flawed, out-dated thinking. There’s now an increasing chance that automated traffic is a legitimate proxy/agent for a genuine human customer or beneficial traffic rather than a disruptive bot.

Good Bot/Bad Bot

Retailers depend on some bot traffic. Getting your site indexed by the Google search bot is of course valuable, perhaps essential. Price comparison and aggregation sites are also popular with consumers — according to the UK Competition and Markets Authority, 85% of all UK internet users have used a price comparison website at some time. These sites use bots to scrape information from a variety of sites to power their comparisons. Retailers who aren’t included may miss out on consumers who appreciate the one-stop-shop convenience of comparison sites.

But what if it’s your competitors, not your customers, who are harvesting information from your site? Secret shoppers and shopper intelligence isn’t a new concept of course — multiple sources, for example GfK Data, exist for traditional physical retail. Compared to older research techniques though, price scraping can gather the pricing details of thousands of products in seconds. Bots can be used to track when competitors place an item on sale or when they list new products, thus providing intelligence to undercut prices or make better competitive decisions.

In June, a number of retailers noticed an increase in the instances of abandoned carts — a mystery shopper was adding items to their basket but not checking out. As reported in the WSJ, this was, in fact, a Google Shopping bot checking that pricing information was accurate and retailers weren’t changing prices between the product detail pages and the checkout.

When Google unveiled its Duplex Assistant technology that can place voice calls on behalf of users, it boasted how a consumer could ask their Assistant to make a reservation and the Google Assistant would phone the relevant business and then use voice synthesis and artificial intelligence to converse with the human answering the phone to make the appointment. While Google presented it as a way for businesses without web technology to accept digital bookings, some saw it as a nuisance caller, being uncomfortable accepting calls from non-humans.

On the other side of the relationship retailers are, of course, already deploying automation to better serve their human customers. Chatbots can represent retailers, triaging basic customer enquiries. While customers may prefer to deal with humans, chatbots are, increasingly, retailers’ first line of defense. But if we customers are expected to deal with automated agents, why shouldn’t retailers expect consumers to return the favour?

The Fastest Shopper Wins

If you’re in a store and look around at all the other shoppers, what’s the one thing they have in common? They’re all human. Online, your fellow shoppers are only 50% likely to be human. You’re often competing for retailers’ attention and inventory with highly efficient automated bots.

Although websites are efficient at presenting browsable information to consumers, they are quite inefficient for completing purchases in the case of consumers who know exactly what they want. Already two sectors in particular — sneakers and ticket sales — have seen a surge in automated shoppers, i.e. bots created with the aim of efficiently purchasing the latest sneakers or the hottest tickets faster than humans. Automated purchasing techniques you’d probably expect to find trading shares on Wall Street are now being used to procure hard-to-find sneakers and games consoles.

Shopping bots are the equivalent of being able to elbow your way to the top of every queue for a launch day special. There are several ‘bot’ products to help you purchase the latest limited edition sneakers or tickets that are valuable on the resale market. Although the websites selling these items try to level the playing field by banning the bots, the bot developers constantly try to work around any barriers placed in their way. The cost of a bot such as AIOBOT? $335, with no guarantee it’ll actually manage to get the sneakers you want. It may just “increase your chances”. In March 2019, a $20 mobile app called SupBot was the number one paid App in the App Store as interest in Supreme’s latest sneakers peaked.

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AIOBOT.com advertises its skill at outpacing human shoppers to purchase multiple pairs

Robo-cop?

Although retailers will continue to try to control automated purchases where they’re clearly not for personal use, regulators are showing an interest in this emerging space. The 2016 BOTS (Better Online Ticket Sales) Act was signed into law by President Obama. It was enacted specifically to prohibit the circumvention of purchase control and ticket allocation measures used by online ticket sellers to ensure equitable consumer access to tickets. A 2017 case from the New York Attorney General saw firms, using bots to buy concert tickets for resale, prosecuted. One company used bots to buy over 1,000 tickets in a minute, a rate of over 16 tickets per second.

There’s an API for that

So what’s the strategic solution — how can retailers manage automated traffic and how can consumers delegate their shopping to software? The answer is for retailers to use Application Programming Interfaces (APIs). APIs are like websites for computers — no fancy graphics or marketing messages — just an interface to exchange commands (orders) with maximum efficiency. They are a programmatic interface offering sanctioned and optimized access to data for automated consumers.

Amazon is, perhaps not surprisingly, at the forefront of automated shopping. It has an entire sub-brand, Amazon Dash, designed for automated orders, selling only to devices acting on behalf of humans. Progressive retailers will continue to use tools to protect their websites from abuse, but proactively provide an API for legitimate automated customers.

Robots in the Real World

Although I’ve been commenting here about the automation of online shopping, eventually we will see similar trends emerging in the physical world. Increasing automation of shopping will bring entirely new challenges to physical retailers. Already, sidewalk robots such as those from Starship Robots are being used extensively to deliver groceries and food orders, requiring new processes to load the orders — how many stores have a suitable space for robots to await loading?

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Starship Robots lined up at a retailer waiting to be filled with orders for delivery

Amazon has a patent on an autonomous robot that a consumer can send to pick up a package instead of having it delivered. But how would I feel at Starbucks if the customer in the queue in front of me is a robot? Will there be separate queues for robots at future Drive Thru restaurants?

Selling to Robots?

To prepare for the future, marketers and CMOs need to think how to market not just to people but to the robots who make decisions for them

Cathy Hackl

If you think the technical challenge of selling to automated consumers is hard, then consider the marketing one — traditional marketing is all about the (human) consumer. It’s never been necessary to put those parentheses in but, in the coming years, consumers will not necessarily be humans with emotions to manipulate. Selling to robots may be a lot harder than simply identifying them.

Making Peace with the Robots

In the ten years between the Star Wars scenes I mentioned, the retailer went from banning robots to be replaced by them. I’m sure there was a difficult interim phase where they grudgingly coexisted but retailers in this galaxy need to find ways to harness the power of automation without falling prey to its darker side. While continuing to manage the shorter term challenges of Covid-19, retailers somehow need to keep an eye on the future and as they reinvent their businesses, prepare to serve a lot more robots.

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David Kerrigan is an author and speaker on the Future of Retail. His latest book, When Humans Stop Shopping is available exclusively on Amazon.

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David Kerrigan

Written by

Thoughts about technology and society. Author of five books: details at https://david-kerrigan.com

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +773K people. Follow to join our community.

David Kerrigan

Written by

Thoughts about technology and society. Author of five books: details at https://david-kerrigan.com

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +773K people. Follow to join our community.

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