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A tale of two dishwashers: Buy one, buy it again, and again

It's all the data's fault, of course… and it's my data so that means it's my fault

Something for the Weekend? Sorry about the noise: two of my dishwashers are going through their rinse cycle. Pass me your plate and I'll set off the third.

It's just my little fantasy. I have not really purchased three dishwashers. But a certain national retail chain of electrical goods wants me to.

In fact, it is so insistent that I should keep buying more dishwashers that the chains send me a daily email to remind me that if I don't buy another dishwasher immediately, I will miss a golden opportunity to own multiple dishwashers. Every day it's dishwashers, dishwashers, and I feel at any moment I might crack and buy another bloody dishwasher just to make them shut up about dishwashers. As the saying goes, if it keeps on raining, that levee's going to break.

The problem started when I bought a dishwasher.

Somewhat naively, I thought that would be the end of the matter. As a registered customer, I knew I would receive the usual follow-up emails from the retailer. The first one is always Were you satisfied with your buying experience? Then comes Would you like to write a review? If you are foolish enough to comply with this request, you get another asking Were you satisfied with your review-writing experience? This is rapidly followed by Were you satisfied by our previous email asking about your review-writing experience? and Were you satisfied by our previous email asking about our previous email asking about your experience of receiving emails asking about your satisfaction with the emails you are receiving?

One can only marvel at what must be going on at Customer Data Central.

I can almost imagine the development project meeting at which the team leader wireframed the data flow plan for everyone on a whiteboard:

"This is first-party data, remember. The customer told us they want to buy a dishwasher. It's their own fault for clicking the 'Buy' button, right? So, once they click 'Buy', let's have a script insert the usual email time-bomb. Make sure it is triggered the moment the mechanic ticks the box marked 'Delivered and installed.' Any questions?"

A hand goes up at the back: "What's in the email time-bomb?"

"Whoa, we have a newbie in the audience!" chuckles the team leader before putting on their serious face again to address the kid directly. "We follow standard retail data practice: get the system to auto-generate daily emails telling the customer to buy another dishwasher."

"What, any other dishwasher?" blurts the apprentice. A few sniggers can be heard around the room.

"Of course not, that would be ridiculous! No, the emails must tell the customer to buy the same model of dishwasher."

"So… er… they'd buy two dishwashers?" stutters the youth, uncertainly. "Exactly the same dishwasher… twice?"

"Yes, yes, that's right," team leader responds, a little impatiently this time. "And once they've bought the second one, set up another time-bomb to make them buy a third. Any other questions? No? Good, get on with it, then."

"Why would anyone…?" begins the green dev before being shushed and elbow-jabbed by the more experienced members of the team as they shuffle towards the door of the project room, trying not to knock over the mops or tread in the buckets on their way out.

If only it were just dishwashers. I rather recklessly bought a new washing machine late last year when the old one that came with the house inevitably packed up. Since then, I have received regular invitations to buy more washing machines, of the same brand and model. At the time, I assumed my inconsistent application of ad blockers and cookie crackers had somehow mangled my customer data in such a way that the electrical retailer thought I was running a launderette.

The dishwasher debacle suggests otherwise. Either that or the retailer presumes I've moved out of the service wash business and into catering. Or maybe it thinks I am running some sort of combined clothes-and-crockery hygiene operation from home, a disrupter in the personal paraphernalia cleaning industry. Pans+Pants, Socks+Sideplates, Cardigans+Cutlery, that sort of thing. I might write a booking app and call it "Mugr" or "Shreddr" or "FFSStpSndgEmlsAbtDshwshrs-r".

You might be forgiven for assuming we had moved on from the days of Amazon's often-hilarious "You might like…" suggestions based on previous purchases. For months you could be happily using Amazon to search for and obtain various tech components to avoid having to go down to your local Maplin (yes, this is a while ago) and suffer the indignity of taking advice from an acne-riddled 16-year-old shop assistant.

Then one day you made the mistake of ordering a present for a cousin's newborn. Just the one, mind. Still, from that moment onwards, Amazon immediately stopped offering deals on three-phase isolation transformers and instead, for literally years afterwards, obsessively stuffed your recommendations with every conceivable edition of The Very Hungry Caterpillar.

This was old-school customer data mangling. In hindsight, the artless manner in which user data was interpreted back then is forehead-slappingly terrible. But it was also amusing and I forgave its shortcomings.

Today, it isn't and I don't. This time, it's not amateurism. It is deliberate.

Not long ago I bought a music CD from an online retailer – not Amazon, by the way – and promptly began receiving emails from them saying "If you like this, you might like…" and recommending that I buy exactly the same CD all over again.

You can't fault the underlying logic, I suppose: I did like the CD, which is why I bought it. It makes perfect sense that if I liked it, I would still like it a week later – but not quite enough to buy it a second time. Besides, I have discovered that it is possible to play my CD more than once.

Even Airbnb is getting into the act. Having booked a week-long stay in Angoulême for the famous comics festival next month, I am now receiving messages from Airbnb urging me to book myself into additional properties on precisely the same dates. "If you have booked a stay in Angoulême in March…" (the data-mangling logic apparently determines) "…you will want to book a stay in Angoulême in March."

Given that I probably won't be able to rest my head on one pillow at my originally booked location while my feet are at the other end of another bed on the other side of town, I guess I will have to set my alarm to wake me up so I can travel back and forth between both properties throughout the night.

Now, Twitter has taken the next step. Ignoring my actual follows and interests, it has spontaneously decided that I want to see tweets from rap artists.

Nobody can explain why. Lots of people enjoy listening to rap; I just happen to not be one of them. I don't listen to rap. I don't know who these rap artists are. I'm certainly not interested in what they are tweeting about. I keep tapping on "Not interested" and "Block" but to no avail.

The logic has moved on from "If you liked this…" and morphed into "We think you like this based on a fundamental error in our customer data management and nothing on God's Earth will persuade us otherwise."

Unfortunately, this twisted logic in retail customer data programming has become the new norm, and there appears to be nothing you can do about it. Crying won't help you, praying won't do any good. We're going down, I tell you. That levee's going to break.

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Alistair Dabbs
Alistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling tech journalism, training and digital publishing. He would like to stress that he does not dislike contemporary rap music for the usual fogeyish reasons. He also can't stand country and western music, and is getting worried that Twitter might find out. More at Autosave is for Wimps and @alidabbs.

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