TRILLIONS of dollars of consumer spending have, historically, depended on a few steps. A shopper learns about a product, considers whether to buy it, decides to do so, goes to a shop. If he likes it, he may buy it again. Marketers have long obsessed over each step, and consultants have written treatises on how to nudge people along. E-commerce is already changing the process, but now retailing gurus are imagining a future in which shopping becomes fully automatic.
The idea is that a combination of smart gadgets and predictive data analytics could decide exactly what goods are delivered when, to which household. The most advanced version might resemble Spotify, a music-streaming service, but for stuff. This future is inching closer, thanks to initiatives from Amazon, lots of startup firms and also from big consumer companies such as Procter & Gamble (P&G).
Buying experiments so far fall into two categories. The first is exploratory. A service helps a shopper try new things, choosing products on his or her behalf. Birchbox, founded in 2010, sends beauty samples to subscribers for $10 each month. Imitators have proliferated, offering everything from dog toys to…
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