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Working with his Ph.D. student Zeeshan-ul-hassan Usmani, Menezes produced a simulated supermarket environment. “We created a simulation that had agents with random preferences for buying things,” he says. They found that when compared with the effects of announcing special discount offers, their customer-feedback model, called Swarm-Moves, resulted in 29 percent more sales.

In order for the feedback system to work, each customer has to receive information tailored to his or her needs, says Menezes. But in practice, this is quite feasible just by merchants using information from loyalty schemes about previous purchases, he says.

This is analogous to the way street hawkers muster the public’s interest by getting insiders to pretend to buy stuff, says Nigel Marlow, a business and consumer psychologist at the London Metropolitan University, in the UK. On the one hand, this lends confidence to the research because this tactic is tried and tested; people fall for it, so it works.

But on the other hand, it suggests that the system could be open to abuse by the supermarkets. Can they really be trusted to feed customers accurate information, or would the temptation to try to artificially stimulate sales by making up purchases be too great? “There’s no doubt that it will be abused,” says Marlow.

Of course there are ethical issues raised by these sorts of sales tactics, says Menezes. But they are no less devious than other sales tactics currently being used, and people can always choose to ignore the messages, he says. What’s more, it is unlikely that customers will even be aware that they are swarming.

Some customers will certainly resist this kind of technological intervention, says Marlow. But he doesn’t doubt that supermarkets will be drawn to it, attracted by the prospect of increasing sales without having to make discounts. “They will do anything to make a sale,” he says.

But Sorensen is not so sure. “It’s not going to happen in the next five years,” he says. The food industry is huge in America, with one in four people currently working in it, either directly or indirectly. “The only thing bigger than the food industry is government,” he says. Because of its enormity, the food industry is incredibly slow to change.

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