One of the most intriguing trends we see is an inevitable increase in automatic and assisted purchasing. The signs are already here.

Amazon is the obvious example. In Jeff Bezos’ world, you can already arrive home to find the heat up, refrigerator stocked, and packages inside the front door. The only thing left is to ask Alexa to play that song you like with the title you can’t remember, because it can.

By the way, if you’re in New York next week (November 1-2), join us at ad:tech where I’ll be speaking about our automatic future. 

It will happen because we want it to

If there’s an overarching theme to the consumer research we’ve conducted over the last couple of years, it’s the desire to simplify. The control that consumers have wrenched from brands has led to the rise in a customer experience-driven economy, but it’s exhausting being your own travel agent, financial advisor, supermarket cashier and media curator.

Combine nearly limitless choice, the 24-hour media cycle, updating social media and the obligation to touch your phone 2,617 times a day and we’re ready for help.

In response, our own research with over 2,200 American adults reveals an enthusiasm for automatic buying. Asked whether automatic repurchasing of standard products would be appealing, over 90% of the sample responded that it would “make my life better.”

Even when the question is less general (and more tangible), consumers like the idea. Asked whether they would like their digital assistant to reorder specific items like alcohol, household goods and food items, almost 60% say the capability would be “life changing” or “very useful.” Among consumers under 35, the number goes up to 72%.

But Siri can barely set an alarm

A time when our digital assistants play a powerful role in our lives may seem a long way off. Today they are a collection of individual features without cognition or context, but their potential doesn’t have to wait.

An assistant doesn’t need true artificial intelligence to stock more ice cream. The individual skills associated with brands and services are already able to reliably perform simple tasks, and that includes ordering and reordering. The factors needed for automatic buying are known in advance, such as price, usage, availability and location, so it’s a relatively easy task and the capability should progress quickly.

The assistants are also getting smarter. Thanks to more than 25 interviews with scientists, futurists and engineers, we got a glimpse of the future and it’s not that far off. The building blocks of consumer AI are already advanced and capabilities like natural language recognition, machine learning and smart bidding are in use today.

So what?

From a brand’s perspective, automatic buying is highly beneficial to the incumbent, and a steep obstacle for the challenger. This will affect certain sectors dramatically and introduce a challenge in fostering product discovery.

For affected lines of business, marketing must adapt. Media spending is targeted at audiences, but automatic buying will mean that large swathes of consumer groups are no longer in-market because inertia and time savings will encourage the deep loyalty of convenience.

This extends to purchases that are made by people but intermediated by machines, such as ordering coffee before picking it up, saving a place in line or ordering take-out food. Some choice remains, but the straightest path to convenience is repetition.

In the future, your Starbucks app may well place an order on your behalf

Strategies will be built differently, with high emphasis on those who are about to “age into” a product line, before they’ve committed to a default brand and spending for the rare opportunities for displacing an incumbent. Broadly this might displace brand spending, but in these specific cases, brand will never be more important.

In sectors that are particularly prone to automation such as grocery, home goods and refillable products, the primary decision maker may well be another machine. A new kind of marketing at the intersection of ecommerce, live auctions and search engine optimization, the practice of targeting and negotiating with buying agents may be the seminal marketing capability for 2022.

Robot assisted buying won’t necessarily be limited to staples

Readers under 30 won’t remember the world of limited choice, but not so long ago, consumers outside of major cities were happy to find clothes that fit or electronics in their price range at local retailers. Today the problem is reversed. Combining the internet with an efficient global supply chain has led to a superabundance of choice in virtually every category.

Consumers say they could use some help in this regard; over 80% agree that “There are so many choices today, it would incredibly useful if [technology] could help me easily find the products that are right for me.”

Of course, we want choice at a reasonable price, but more than that we want the time to make the choices that matter. The trend of this era is no longer the proliferation of choice, but of curation. We want someone or something to help us sift through the possibilities. We want most choices off our shoulders and simply to receive the right wine or cheese or tie or snack or sock pairing at our door.

For more on the subject, join us next week at ad:tech New York. I’ll be speaking on Thursday afternoon about our automatic future, and there’s a strong agenda over both days of the conference. You should try to catch Tech as a Creative Canvas with Intel Labs, The End of Advertising with Andrew Essex and definitely Trust, Transparency and Ad Quality.