Spoilt by choice

by Noel O'Hare / 31 December, 2005
The next big retail trend is having experts select what we buy. But can they be trusted?

It's only in the last mad rush that you realise the true message of Christmas: there is just too much stuff in the shops and nothing you really want to buy. The average Kiwi is expected have spent more than $900 over Christmas this year, but for some of us it's not going to be easy.

It's time to move to the next level - curated consumption, having experts select what we buy. With so much on offer, we've become picky, and it doesn't take much to put us off. When psychologists Amos Tversky and Eldar Shafir tested the reaction of subjects to a desirable Sony appliance radically marked down in a shop window, they showed real enthusiasm. However, when another desirable Sony product at a similar knockdown price was placed beside it, the reaction was less enthusiastic and sales dropped. The test customers evidently just couldn't make up their minds.

A lot of consumption is no longer about buying what we need, it's about getting a buzz from snapping up the latest at a bargain price. Most of us, though, don't have the time to ferret out that special item that is good value or will tickle our consumer fancy. We need help and we need it now. That's why curated consumption could become one of the biggest trends of the decade.

It's already here. Many bookshops, for example, now tag their shelves with "staff picks", handwritten mini-reviews (though if I'm going to shell out $35 for a book, I'd want something more authoritative than "This book is an awesome read - Melanie"). At the supermarket, Alison Holst helps us to select the right muesli, and in the Warehouse we can count on Jo Seagar for the best kitchenware brands. Personal shoppers, consumer guides who track down just the right product for you, operate in big department stores in the US, and are catching on here.

Not everyone, though, is convinced that curated consumption is the answer to consumer happiness. "The trouble is, it needs to be a curator you can trust," says psychologist Barry Schwartz, the author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. "Because there's so much money at stake, it's hard to see how this trend can preserve its integrity."

For most people, though, the internet, with its millions of reviews from ordinary consumers, is curated consumption at its most reliable. I wouldn't dream of buying computer or electronic gear without checking out consumer reviews on epinions.com or amazon.com - and I'm not alone. Research shows that 30 percent of buyers have actually bought a product online based on someone else's online rating.

For lifestyle choices, relevance is the key. A Rome B&B recommended by an Irish nun on tripadvisor.com may not suit a 20-year-old Australian gay man. According to the marketing website Trendwatching.com, the cutting-edge of consumer choice is "twinsumers" - "consumers looking for the best of the best, the first of the first, the most relevant of the relevant, increasingly don't connect to 'just any other consumer' any more, they are hooking up with (and listening to) their taste 'twins'; fellow consumers somewhere in the world who think, react, enjoy and consume the way they do".

Automated Collaborative Filtering (ACF), software that makes automatic predictions (filtering) about a consumer's interest by collecting selections from many consumers (collaborating), is already being used to help shoppers make good choices (and sell more products). Thus when I check out on Amazon the Schwartz book mentioned above, it tells me that "customers who bought this book also bought" The Wisdom of Crowds, Blink, Freaknomics, etc and - did I know about the DVD Frontline, which "examines the persuasion industries - advertising and public relations". This is a better list than any librarian is likely to come up with, and it will only get better. Futurist Alexander Chislenko has predicted that it will soon be possible "to design ACF algorithms so that they can track the development paths of other people interested in a particular area - noticing, for example, that people who study arithmetic or rap music today are likely to turn to algebra or rock tomorrow - and give them advice aimed at helping them move ahead".

The mobile phone will become the consumer's best friend, relaying all this helpful advice as we shop. There is already free software available that allows shoppers to turn their mobile phone camera into a barcode scanner and compare prices via the internet. With shopping so easy, of course, there's a risk that we'll buy even more stuff that we don't need. But isn't that what TradeMe's for?

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