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Bulls that wreck your business online need not know a thing about fine china or your financial clout.

Algorithms are like bulls that are created by some smart software developers with which they tell you gives you control over the prices. Products are the wares you think you control while there is a whole world of online shoppers who are ready to buy them. Sometimes it can go spectacularly wrong when your algorithms have shown up a blunder. It can cause offence as well as destroy livelihoods.

Now comes an Aussie from Melbourne who two years ago was the owner of a T-shirt company called Solid Gold Bomb, which sold a wide variety of garments online via, among other outlets, Amazon. He did everything, well almost as a savvy entrepreneur should do.

Fowler had set up an algorithm to upload thousands upon thousands of T-shirt designs to his online stores. The designs were based on the infamous “keep calm and carry on” catchphrase, a slogan, which was originally dreamt up as a way of preserving morale in the event of a Nazi invasion of Britain. Fowler thought a parody would do nicely. Thus he got a computer program to come up with random variations such as “keep calm and dance on” or “keep calm and play football”.

But the huge list of word choices that he fed in included less savoury options – which he says he had no knowledge of. In particular, a T-shirt emblazoned with the imperative “keep calm and rape a lot” had been published. No-one had bought it. In fact, it sat on the web for more than a year before anyone even noticed it. But eventually it was discovered – and the internet went crazy. Twitter was ablaze with condemnation. “Solid Gold Bomb is crouching behind its algorithmically generated excuse,” said Gizmodo. Others pointed out the stupidity of using an unexamined word list to automatically generate slogans for a commercial product.

Fowler admits he made a “big mistake” and within a couple of months, Solid Gold Bomb folded. His employees were all out of jobs and a once thriving firm was gone. All because of a horrible T-shirt that no-one wore, no-one bought, and which never materially existed.

But that’s the trouble with algorithms. All sorts of unexpected results can occur.

Years before he ever experimented with the “keep calm and carry on” meme, he had devised an automated T-shirt design process which published over 22 million different versions of sports-related designs to a web store. These included icons and, crucially, people’s names. Finding the shirt with your name or your friend’s name on it made you much more likely to buy it, discovered Fowler. “It was about a 100-to-one ratio. For example, a picture of a car would sell once whereas a picture of a car with a name below it would sell a 100 times,” he says.

When Fowler first launched this technique in 2011 he received 800 orders over the first weekend. He was blown away and the effect on his business was profound. Soon he was processing thousands of orders a day. The problem was that a huge proportion of the designs weren’t vetted for suitability by human eyes before they went live on the web – an oversight that would lead to the problems two years later. “I’ve realised that you have to have an element of scrutiny,” he admits.

Fowler has now returned to selling T-shirts – after a spell as a traffic warden and as a ranger catching stray dogs – but today he is more careful. His current company, Big Texas, also uses an algorithmic process to create designs for aprons, but he uses published lists of the 1,000 most common names, not random assortments of words.

Errant algorithms can also cause human headaches when it comes to prices. The costs of products that appear on retail websites are constantly fluctuating thanks to software that sets them competitively. The frequency at which these changes happen is so great that dedicated websites have been set up to “watch” the pricing on websites like Amazon. Daniel Green has been running one of these sites for years. He explains that prices don’t just change daily – but sometimes several times in one day.

“They will drop the price of a product every few days or every few hours until a product is purchased by someone and then the price goes back up,” he says. “We know that they keep prices low on a lot of their most popular products to give the impression that they have great deals and then for less active product categories or less popular products they may have a bit more of a profit margin there.”

Sometimes this can produce amusing and unexpected results, however, in what Green calls a “race to the bottom”. Two retailers selling the same thing on Amazon’s marketplace will re-price their product against their competitor, but the re-pricing can occasionally continue unabated until absurdly low or high price points are reached. “It just goes back and forth,” says Green.

Online shopping is here to stay. Buy your stuff and do your maths and above all don’t buy what you do not really want and yet feel guilty for letting a bargain of a lifetime go. Be sure if you have missed one you are sure to find several bargain offers that are all sent to you not for your own good.

(ack: an article by By Chris Baraniuk/20 August 2015-BBC online news-future)

benny

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