SAINTS PRESERVE US
A + B = C: Unintended Consequences
National food and pharmacy giant Loblaw last week allowed to The Canadian Press that it might have been a glutton for too much of a good algorithm. Apparently the chain’s implementation of an artificially intelligent marketing strategy derived from data extracted from its customer loyalty program and designed to increase profit has, in fact, done the exact opposite. This is not pathetic fallacy or mere coincidence, Alanis Morissette, this is O. Henry irony writ large in red ink.
Arithmetic has never been one of my core strengths. But through six decades of life I’ve worked out a sort of formula akin to an equation by reading literature, studying history, staying current with the day’s news and examining my own life: action A intended to affect (not always successfully) outcome B inevitably creates unintended consequence C; where A is the constant, B is the variable and C is the constant variable, the proverbial spanner in the works. More often than not it’s prudent to be careful what you wish for.
Loblaw’s enhanced marketing plan failed to achieve its main goal, boost same store sales. It also inadvertently encouraged loyal customers to buy more goods which provided the retailer slimmer margins. Sometimes it’s just simpler to fix the price of bread. An analog aside: same store sales somewhat stubbornly remain the golden metric of retail success even though most retailers are on board with their own cannibalistic e-commerce platforms.
Should you take a moment to do the math, (in your head or in my case with a Texas Instruments calculator), you’ll quickly realize that our postmodern world is rife with ABCs and always has been. There is always a compelling, if flawed, argument to insert a sabot into the gears of progress and advancement because, truthfully, nothing ever seems to work out as planned. The Internet and its utilization to invade privacy, and spread hate speech and propaganda is an obvious culprit to target, right up there with the internal combustion engine whose proliferation has had a resoundingly negative impact on architectural design, land usage and hey, strange weather we’re having these days.
However the alternatives to progress present portfolios overstuffed with their own unintended consequences. Stasis is stultifying and unnatural; planned regression is just insanity, Canute could not roll back the tides and even
turn back time. Though Loblaw’s stumble this quarter may constitute a
technophobe’s wet dream, the company’s only way forward is to tweak its
algorithms and their usage, keep on keeping on until they get it right.