business e-commerce

The next big thing in retail: programmatic commerce

The future of commerce is all about consumers and businesses allowing technology to make purchase decisions on their behalf based on pre-programmed parameters and learned preferences.


Imagine this: you wake up in the morning and your coffee machine, as it pours you your first cup, tells you it’s almost out of your favourite blend. Rather than making a mental note to yourself to remember to buy some more on your next store visit, your machine instantly does the ordering for you – adding it to your shopping basket, along with the detergent that needs replacing, the toothpaste you’re running low on, and the mascara that is just about to dry out.

When you leave for work, you get an update that the order will be delivered to the trunk of your car that afternoon. You then get a notification that it’s your friend’s birthday, and based on social media data that your digital assistant has pulled, you are recommended an ideal present to buy. You automatically add that to the checkout also.

Welcome to the age of programmatic commerce: a world where mundane repeat purchases and those easily solved by data insights, are automatically done for you.

The phrase – though used in other spots across the internet – has been coined by global commerce service provider, Salmon, as: “Where consumers and businesses allow technology to make purchase decisions on their behalf based on pre-programmed parameters and learned preferences.” Head over to Forbes to read more about it.

By Rachel Arthur

Rachel Arthur is Editor-in-Chief of Current Daily, the leading news source for fashion, retail and innovation, and the co-host of its weekly Innovators podcast. She otherwise serves as Co-Founder and Chief Innovation Officer of Current Global, a transformation consultancy driving growth within fashion luxury and retail. By background she is an award-winning business journalist and consultant, contributing to titles including Wired, Forbes and Business of Fashion.

5 replies on “The next big thing in retail: programmatic commerce”

Oh yes, this is so on the mark. It is one of the core principles that supports the business model of Well Dressed (yes here I go again). The goal is to make something that users trust, and they can integrate into their habbits, after that, as long as the check-out is simple enough, it will make sense for them to start purchase from your app. This is why I don’t fullheartedly believe in marketplace apps, that are only there to shop. You get a piece of software on someone’s most intimate device, if you want to stay on there and keep being used, you need to provide value on a personal level as well. A pure shopping platform will never do that.

With the proliferation of choice and corresponding decision fatigue we as consumers face every day, the inflexion point of do we / don’t we need assistance is well in our wake.

The great benefit of programmatic assistance (via machine learning and ultimately true AI) is, at its best, we as consumers can still control the choice from which a selection is made, which increases the probability of satisfaction with the ultimate decision as the inputs are our own.

To digress slightly, the flip-side as represented by the many services that try to solve the pain by reducing our choice to begin with (e.g. any pre-curated subscription box) very rarely hit this mask, and to Stephan’s salient point re: trust, can too easily be perceived as ‘they’re trying to sell to me’ versus ‘they’re trying to help me’. Usually, because they are!

I’ve done many circles on this issue, and have spent the past few years attempted via my startup to solve; personally, I’m not convinced the trend towards outwardly shiny new tech (beacons! in-store interactive displays! VR!) in retail a la these sorts of ‘future vision’ exercises will ultimately be beneficial to the consumer (also see +rehab’s WholeFoods future vision for something similar:

unless we are put front and centre, and that’s where this article and perhaps this example more than others, is spot on.

It’s the technology that is not about selling more but helping consumers buy better that will win; the technology that is built from the ground-up to serve consumer needs and make our pre-existing behaviours easier to complete, versus those that ask us to do things differently.

Wonderful comment, thanks Omar. Sell me versus help me is such a key point and will be really interesting to see it play out with this programmatic concept. Perhaps you’d like to pen a comment piece for us at some point with more of your thoughts…!

Would love to, Rachel. Email me at with deets re: how I could go about that? Completely free-form?

p.s. upon re-reading, I realise I mixed up what I wrote above re: choice selection; “control the selection from which a choice is made” – duh! 🙂

p.p.s. this comment isn’t meant to be published – thx!

Great comments Omar. I’m wondering about wether a machine learning actually is a solution, or just the solution that comes most natural for most developers. If I look at my users they change tastes based on the season, and more often in countries that have hotter climates. And they have several styles that tend to be tied to occasion instead of person. If I look at this problem, a design harmony algorithm seems to make more sense then trying to design a neural network for this problem. What are your thoughts?

Ps: I just gave a talk about this at a conference for menswear and style and opposite to the fashtech world, harmony calculations seem to be much more popular under that audience then a neural network solution, since it mimics the way how stylists approach a problem

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