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  • Writer's pictureNick Bonney

Discovery & Inspiration Remain Key in the Age of the Algorithm

Updated: Nov 30, 2022

Rory Sutherland wrote a lovely piece in the latest issue of Impact magazine, bemoaning the limited choice of online interfaces and asking whether ‘internet searches would be better if they incorporated a degree of randomness’.

In his own inimitable style, he highlights the limited sets of choices are often presented with in the online world and the broad-brush assumptions that algorithms can make when presenting us with a narrower set of choices e.g. rail planners which assume everyone wants the quickest rather than cheapest or easiest route.

Image: Warren Jones via Unsplash

It begs the question... In a world becoming increasingly dominated by ‘the algorithm’ how do discover anything new? We series link our beloved TV shows on our set top boxes and we add our favourite grocery items to favourites so we can repeat buy the same brands. How can we keep that magic of the accidental find, that serendipitous moment of discovery where we discover something that’s absolutely perfect even though we didn’t know we were looking for it in the first place?!

Undoubtedly, these moments are much harder to replicate in a digital world and, as Rory so eloquently points out, the risk is that online retailers impose ‘a uniformity on consumer decision making…. Making markets worse rather than better’.

However, it feels to me as if there is a step change in the experience being offered by many online retailers, many of whom may be looking to the changes in the way we consume content for inspiration. Earlier this year, the Chartmetric blog, highlighted how Spotify is looking to tap into mood and context to drive listening rather than music genre alone. You can read the full blog here ( but, to summarise, context- led playlists now account for 36.5% of Spotify playlists and generate more followers than those which are content-led. However the sweet-spot appears to be the ‘hybrid’ playlists (those that can be discovered through both a content and context led journey) which have both the highest growth rate and the highest number of followers per playlist.

So what’s all this got to do with shopping? ASOS continue to deliver stellar results (> 20% growth for three years in a row) and it’s clear that they are one brand who cannot be accused of assuming a uniformity in decision making. places as much focus on discovery as on inventory with the Style Feed providing ‘grooming, inspiration and advice’ to men and ‘shopping tips, outfit ideas and how-to’s’ for women. All this on top of the incredibly successful ASOS magazine which remains the most frequently mentioned piece of customer comms in any piece of research I carry out in this area.

ASOS Style Feed

And it’s not just ASOS. Ted Baker has also been outperforming the rest of the high street over the past three years (despite recent profit woes) and they also now lead on curated content rather than product in their UX. Similarly, premium retailer Reiss who have just re-platformed their website and have experience a 15% increase in total sales in September, also now lead on their ‘editorial’ within their UX . It would be wrong though to discount this as a luxury only premium brands can afford; fast fashion retailer Boohoo delivers inspiration through The Fix and even the troubled stalwart of the middle ground, M&S, now give prominence to an ‘Inspire me’ section on their website.

Reiss & Ted Baker Serve Up Online Inspiration

With all these attempts to introduce more richness into the online experience, it could be argued it’s actually the High Street which is failing to keep pace. Every week it seems we read more doom and gloom, be it the latest CVA or worse than expected performance (retail sales fell by 0.8% in September according to the ONS last week) and yet it seems that one of the key elements which differentiates store and the algorithm is so often downplayed. Many stores seem to intent on cramming as much product into the store as possible that the context and experience of the shopper is often overlooked. Nowhere is this more evident than the recent disastrous transformation of Homebase into Bunnings.

Credit then to discount brand retailer, TK Maxx. Love it or hate it, it’s a brand which is crystal clear that what it stands for - the treasure hunt. A brand that understands the journey is as important as the destination, even if the journey might mean sifting through racks of product just to find that hidden gem. Commercially, it continues to out-perform the market (it recently announced sales of nearly £3bn) and it is one of the few retailers growing its estate (it now has some 390 properties in the UK) A quick read through The TK Maxx Gallery of Horrors shows that even the weirdest and wackiest products are celebrated by brand advocates.

We are right to be concerned about markets which can become too dominated by algorithms and 'next best action'; where the focus is so clearly on removing friction that there is no consideration for the mood or context of the shopper. However, it feels like it’s wrong to highlight this as an issue rooted solely in the online world when so many physical retail outlets seem to be struggling to deliver a richer and more emotional experience than their online counterparts.

It seems only right then to end with a brand who is clearly getting it right and who knows just how to tap into spontaneity. The undisputed King of Trainers, JD Sports, recently declared a 19% increase in first half earnings and pre-tax profits of nearly £122m, attributing the continued success of their store portfolio to the "social nature of consumers' shopping trips and impulsive nature of their buying decisions”. Rory would be impressed, I think….


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