Swarm and the herd

Posted by on Nov 15, 2006 in Uncategorized | No Comments


Well, I do.

Not as often as I should, I guess, but often enough. Stephen Phillipps of Spring Research pointed this piece out in last week’s issue.

“Stocking the most expensive products at eye level makes them sell faster than cheaper but less visible competitors. Now researchers are investigating how “swarm intelligence” (that is, how ants bees or any social animal,including humans, behave in a crowd) can be used to influence what people buy….”

The piece references work by Zeeshan-ul-hussan Usmani of Princeton. “The idea is that if a certain product is seen to be popular, shoppers are likely to choose it too. The challenge is to keep customers informed ab out what others are buying”. Usmani is prototyping ‘smart-cart’ technology – that is getting trolley’s to tell shoppers what others are buying using a sort of radio barcode on packaging and radio scanners on trolleys.

Usman’s model “appeals to supermarkets because it increases sales without the need to give people discounts…(and) gives shoppers the satisfaction of knowing that they bought the ‘right’ product – that is, the one that everyone else bought’.

While the technology may be new, the mechanism is as old as our species itself: we tend to buy what we think others buy (or the opposite) and shop where the others shop. Go to any street market and you’ll see that some stalls are always busy and some not. Look at the repeated success of brands like Coke (which repeatedly loses in blind taste tests) – people buy them because they believe other people do. Look at the rise of blogging – most folk blog because it’s the thing to do.

Look at sales of the Economist – its marketing reinforces that assumption that folk that are successful buy it (and those that aren’t, don’t).