On Friday afternoon, I got a call on my phone. It was “+91 9818… ” number, and my first instinct was it was someone at work (my company is headquartered in Gurgaon), and I mentally prepared a “don’t you know I’m on vacation? can you call me on Monday instead” as I picked the call.
It turned out to be Baninder Singh, founder of Savorworks Coffee. I had placed an order on his website on Thursday, and I half expected him to tell me that some of the things I had ordered were out of stock.
“Karthik, for your order of the Pi?anas, you have asked for an Aeropress grind. Are you sure of this? I’m asking you because you usually order whole beans”, Baninder said. This was a remarkably pertinent observation, and an appropriate question from a seller. I confirmed to him that this was indeed deliberate (this smaller package is to take to office along with my Aeropress Go), and thanked him for asking. He went on to point out that one of the other coffees I had ordered had very limited stocks, and I should consider stocking up on it.
Some people might find this creepy (that the seller knows exactly what you order, and notices changes in your order), but from a more conventional retail perspective, this is brilliant. It is great that the seller has accurate information on your profile, and is able to detect any anomalies and alert you before something goes wrong.
Now, Savorworks is a small business (a Delhi based independent roastery), and having ordered from them at least a dozen times, I guess I’m one of their more regular customers. So it’s easy for them to keep track and take care of me.
It is similar with small “mom-and-pop” stores. Limited and high-repeat clientele means it’s easy for them to keep track of them and look after them. The challenge, though, is how do you scale it? Now, I’m by no means the only person thinking about this problem. Thousands of business people and data scientists and retailers and technology people and what not have pondered this question for over a decade now. Yet, what you find is that at scale you are simply unable to provide the sort of service you can at small scale.
In theory it should be possible for an AI to profile customers based on their purchases, adds to carts, etc. and then provide them customised experiences. I’m sure tonnes of companies are already trying to do this. However, based on my experience I don’t think anyone is doing this well.
I might sound like a broken record here, but my sense is that this is because the people who are building the algos are not the ones who are thinking of solving the business problems. The algos exist. In theory, if I look at stuff like stable diffusion or Chat GPT (both of which I’ve been playing around with extensively in the last 2 days), algorithms for stuff like customer profiling shouldn’t be THAT hard. The issue, I suspect, is that people have not been asking the right questions of the algos.
On one hand, you could have business people looking at patterns they have divined themselves and then giving precise instructions to the data scientists on how to detect them – and the detection of these patterns would have been hard coded. On the other, the data scientists would have had a free hand and would have done some unsupervised stuff without much business context. And both approaches lead to easily predictable algos that aren’t particularly intelligent.
Now I’m thinking of this as a “dollar bill on the road” kind of a problem. My instinct tells me that “solution exists”, but my other instinct tells that “if a solution existed someone would have found it given how many companies are working on this kind of thing for so long”.
The other issue with such algos it that the deeper you get in prediction the harder it is. At the cohort (of hundreds of users) level, it should not be hard to profile. However, at the personal user level (at which the results of the algos are seen by customers) it is much harder to get right. So maybe there are good solutions but we haven’t yet seen it.
Maybe at some point in the near future, I’ll take another stab at solving this kind of problem. Until then, you have human intelligence and random algos.