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Predictive selling to become part and parcel of commerce

WHENEVER I watch a science fiction movie I am always left pondering if the technology and happenings are feasible from a fundamental point of view, and if so, when will they appear, and will it be in my lifetime. Perhaps none so much as Minority Report (Steven Spielberg 2002) with the hero policeman Tom Cruise engaged in predictive crime arrests. In 2002 some of the technology seemed beyond the pale, while other aspects appeared technically feasible, and now of course they are already with us.

In the last four years the featured displays and gesture interfaces have been demonstrated at various levels of refinement with some items already commercially available. At the same time, elements of the predictive technologies showcased in Minority Report are now in use with police forces and government agencies ‘sans the seers’ and their great accuracy.

At an elemental level, Amazon et al offer us suggested choices of books, music and goods because other people similar to us bought x and then bought y, and so on. Of course, Google is a market leader with their ‘market of one’ approach – with every ad driven by your habits and those of thousands of others over very long histories year on year. Moreover, as our lives and needs progress and change with age, so do the predictions. They know when you marry, when you have children, when you are supporting elderly parents, when you go on vacation and so on. No surprise then that some leading edge high street retailers are also getting into all this in the real space of ‘click and pick’. It is all big and ‘predictable’ business.

Anticipating a customer’s need and satisfying it efficiently and cost effectively might be the optimum marketing mantra, but to do this on the back of an integrated supply chain from raw material to perfect product is the dream. Well, first into the ring is Amazon with their announcement of a patent on Anticipatory Shipping.

You won’t have to waste time searching to find and then place an order, they intend predicting your need and shipping the goods so you can see, try, and think. Did they get it right? If yes pay up, but if no ship it back. Will this actually work? I reckon it is a racing certainty, but the only question is; what about the timing? Are they too early in the market? Only we the customers can decide.

Anyway, how can all this possibly work? Today we have social networks, social selling, big data and artificial intelligence coming together, and very shortly the internet of things. So imagine the possibilities with an intelligence like IBM Watson, which has already outgunned the human race in the general knowledge and medical arena, boosted by the recently announced R&D budget spend exceeding $1bn (£612m). Combine this with the power the social networks that connect most of us, plus the data gathered by every electronic point of sale, on-line transaction and loyalty programme.

Clever cars

All very impressive for sure, but now consider the impact of everything online with a modicum of embedded intelligence. Cars, computers, appliances, clothing and goods that know they need repair or replacement, and organise it all for us – no fuss, no bother, and no costly inconvenience. Far-fetched? Not really. The energy sector, military and automotive industries do an awful lot of this already – including the supply of fuel to and maintenance of garages and petrol stations. However, the internet of things is expected to support over fifty billion entities online, supported by thousands of fixed and mobile clouds.

Just because we can do something is never a sufficient excuse for just doing it. We always need to think through the impact on and benefit to the individual and society, as well as the ROI of course. So is predictive selling and supply a big deal and will it fly? I reckon. For me it is an essential step in the migration to a green and sustainable future. Who bought what, when where; what did the use it for; how did it perform; and how was it disposed of are the key poles of such a future.

But it gets even better. Not only will we never run out of milk, tea, coffee, food, drinks and sundries, we won’t miss that bargain purchase of chinos, shoes and jacket. This will not only change the nature of shopping on and off line, it will reshape the whole supply chain. And it will likely be a huge magnification of the visit to a charity shop to buy previously used clothing becoming a respectable thing to do.

Sustainability demands a change in our economic models and thinking beyond the money and ROI to include social and economic impact. Chips in everything are thus a vital component in the reuse, repurpose and recycle process alone with ‘just in time’ production and supply.

Where this particular revolution starts and get energised is irrelevant, but in the topsy-turvy world of e-commerce, Amazon might just be a significant catalyst by pushing the technology, consumer and markets toward the major change we need. On the other hand they might be a tad early. We will soon see, but for me predictive selling can’t come fast enough.

Peter Cochrane is an IT consultant and former chief technologist at BT

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