From The Editor: Spring 2019

The future is frictionless
Naomi Szeben
June 03, 2019
By
The way we’re doing business is changing. When the first unattended, coin-operated vending machine, or “automat” was unveiled in 1880 in England, dispensing postcards, entrepreneurs knew a business opportunity when they saw one.

For a little over a hundred years, vending has relied on coins and later, bills. The logical step in its evolution is the chip-reading card, and we can already see transactions taking place over the Internet, and being paid by a smart watch or cell phone.

It was an education for me to learn about where unattended sales are going. Michelle Brisebois’ article on cashless payments reveals current trends and technological innovations was a fascinating read.

I recall being intrigued and a little disturbed in learning how some kiosks use facial recognition to cull data from both previous and potential users. Some features blur the line between ‘disruptive’ to ‘invasive.’ This is sometimes an Orwellian environment, where our buying habits and data are uploaded and culled to form an online persona that marketers can tap into to sell their goods.

In 1973, a short film called ‘Television Delivers People’ discussed how television made its viewers a product. When the Internet was in its infancy in the early 1990’s, data became a hot commodity:  Richard Serra was quoted stating that if an app was free, its user became the product.” With online purchases increasing, we can see sites that offer similar products, or search engines that gather our information make suggestions for future transactions. Is this helpful, or intrusive?

When our online wallets and EMV chips have a record of transaction types and places, what kind of buying profile are we building? A marketing specialist can build a profile from what we buy, and how we pay for it. Today, technology is no longer making this a specialists field: You no longer need a degree in analytics or information studies to learn buying habits or track consumer behaviour. In some cases, these features are built in, by providing an incentive for a consumer to hand over information willingly with surveys or a free treat in exchange for social media information. We have become the mice in a behavioural study: Give us your payment preferences and buying habits, and we’ll give you cheese…so to speak.

From a technological point of view, this opens up a lot of opportunities for vendors to learn about who buys what, and when. How old are they? No more guess work as to what the top selling, top shelf items might be — new and better devices no longer need demographic studies. A vending machine in a recreation center may sell potato chips faster than chocolate bars, but what if a machine can tally up the local preferences with an interface that asks preferences from its users? In exchange for a free treat, this survey can provide snacks that are never ignored, as well as gather information on future buying habits.

I’m not against the idea of data-farming, but this is a nacent field. Knowledge is power, and I often wonder what data is gleaned from my buying behaviour. What sort of image does my bank have of me? Where are the majority of my online purchases made and what do my transactions say about my personality? Am I easier to market for, or am I a blank slate? If my local coffee shop knows my preference before I place an order, why is that seen as good service, but it seems presumptuous if a machine made a profile for me and predicted my drink preferences?

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