Will robots do our shopping for us in the future?


Convenience has always been king in America. It’s what gave rise to fast food and one stop supercenter stores. New tech popularity and adoption is heavily linked to the convenience offered. Even when environmentally maligned like Keurig coffee systems, consumers often opt for convenience.

Consumers were certainly drawn to online shopping initially because of the actual or perceived discounts, but as more products became available and as Amazon compressed delivery times convenience began to win the day.  Amazon continues to innovate when it comes to conveniently being able to buy whatever you need.  Innovations like pushing a Dash button to re-order some laundry detergent or asking Alexa to order some cat litter show the progression. 

How long will it be before these devices do the ordering for us, without our prompting?

It’s not hard to image a future where a fully integrated home would know to replenish itself. Smart-fridges already have the technology to keep stock and have delivery orders placed. Are people willing to turn over the control of their purchases and essentially their bank account to a robot? 

Are we close enough for this to even be a possibility in the next 5 years?

According to our Future of E-Commerce survey, most people say no. 70% of our respondents don’t believe the robots will have control of our wallets in 5 years. 



However I wanted to gain some additional perspective from some folks enabling us to leverage bots in our businesses today. Do they believe 5 years is just too short for implementation; or do they believe people will never be that trusting of technology?

I thought it would be interesting to hear the opinions of some technology entrepreneurs providing AI-based solutions to retailers and brands.

Larry Kim, CEO of MobileMonkey, a chatbot marketing platform, offered the following insights, "I don't know if we'll be using personal shopping assistants in 5 years, but AI is already having a profound impact on how ad targeting on Facebook and Google, which dramatically impacts shopping behavior, and is something many in the industry thought was not possible."

"I just think that that shopping trends are really difficult to predict. AI by definition looks at patterns in the past and tries to predict future behavior, and that's just harder to do when people like to buy new stuff that wasn't invented before. Of course a shopping bot could tell you that your fridge filter needs to be changed, but I just think that people have complex tastes and preferences and this could be a tough nut to crack."

Conversely, Usama Noman, CEO of Botisy was much more optimistic that in 5 years robots will do the shopping for us. "We are already there to some extent. At Google I/O this year, Google demonstrated Google Assistant making a reservation on your behalf by having a real telephonic conversation between a computer and the person that answered the phone at the restaurant.  In five years we will see other companies emerging to level up the game making purchases via chatbots on your behalf."

"The AI is already capable of reading reviews, knowing your flavor and mood to find you the best product of the lot.  While a lot of the technology is in place today, it's still very hard to manage languages other than English.  There are tons of people who are not very familiar with the English language. Middle-Eastern countries specifically are not comfortable with English. Local startups will have to emerge to do this work in order to make this a global reality in next 5 years. Amazon and Google are already making progress in India and Japan, but some work has to be done for other major languages around the world for this to trend to become ubiquitous."

"Once this work is done, it will revolutionize e-commerce and suddenly you will find there won’t be many people ordering food and cosmetics by logging into their laptops or mobile phones, it will be all done through voice commands."

Finally, I turned to Gary Hoover, retail strategist, entrepreneur and business historian to put this trend in context of the greater evolution of retailing and consumer technology adoption.  Gary believes, "any predictions of the future must be based on a close and thoughtful analysis both of customers and of the products or services offered. Does the product require touch or not? It is easy for me to know which toothpaste or toilet paper I want, less so with clothing, fresh produce, or laptops (for those of us who type a lot). Is the level of touch changing? Refrigerators were pretty basic; all you had to know was the cubic size and color.

Now, and more so in the future, they are feature-laden. Maxwell House tasted pretty much the same at home or in any café; but coffees are not all the same today. Do I need a demonstration or a test drive? What is the frequency of purchase? There is a big difference between bread and sofas. What is the rate of innovation in the field? The Internet of Things brings new products to market each day. Pencils change a bit more slowly. But even underwear and mattresses are changing as I write this.

Stores, if run right, are better places to see and experience the new than the Internet.

You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.
— Steve Jobs

Those who take the long view of change – looking back 5, 10, or even 20 years, rather than the last month, quarter, or year – will be more likely to understand the future.

Deep thought about these questions and others like them will help retailers – online and off – to better navigate the future.  Some products will be sold by hitting a dash button, or on automatic re-order, but much will also be sold by real people in real buildings."

Personally, I feel pretty strongly that within 5 years time we will have an AI-based personal assistant that we can converse with and will turn over some form of our purchasing power to.  It’s not hard to imagine the evolution of Alexa and Google Assistant in the next 5 years being capable of doing more and more of our shopping for us.  Amazon clearly has the early advantage here and possibly an insurmountable advantage if Google doesn’t start executing much better.  

If you agree with this vision of the future or even want to make this future a reality what are the steps you should take today?

For retailers and brands, the conversations that your customer care team are having with your customers are the fuel for this future.  Making sure you have access to the raw data whether it is chat, email, SMS, messenger, a phone conversation or another form of social interaction will prove very valuable.  Additionally, as part of any experimental budgets I’d throw some resources at one of the chatbot services and would probably start investigating some Alexa Skill and Google Action development as a way of better understanding what a future would look like where bots are buying your products on behalf of humans.

about the author

Shilo Jones StatBid Co-Founder.png

Shilo co-founded StatBid with Roy Steves.  Shilo has spent nearly two decades building e-commerce businesses starting with evo.com where he served as the President as well as holding leadership positions at DestinationLighting.com and GolfDiscount.com.

Shilo Jones, Co-Founder, StatBid