Those Strange Swaps in Your Grocery Delivery Order May Actually Be Your Own Fault

You can blame the algorithm — but the algorithm can also blame you.

A person holds lettuce in the produce aisle
Photo: Kathrin Ziegler / Getty Images

The option to place grocery orders digitally for delivery or collection has become an increasingly common modern convenience, but having someone else pick out groceries on our behalf has created an odd side-effect: strange substitutions. Receiving the occasionally unsatisfactory — if not downright bizarre — swap has become part of the process.

The Wall Street Journal recently dug into this phenomenon, and though bad swaps can happen for all sorts of reasons, one of the answers they found is actually quite surprising: The computers are blaming you.

Some companies, such as Whole Foods, told the WSJ that the people picking your groceries have control over what substitutes are chosen. However, Walmart said they had "a substitution algorithm that recommends the next best item based on the customer's shopping history" — and in theory, the more you shop, the more accurate the algorithm should be with substitutions over time.

But which is better: The whims of a human being trying to get inside your brain or the cold calculations of a computer? For simple swaps, like switching from one brand to another, a computer looking at your shopping history seems sensible. But what about slightly more complicated choices? The example the WSJ provided was a woman who placed an order with Walmart for silver, red, and gold baubles as ornaments for her Christmas tree but instead received packs of little brown pine cones. Sure, both are known for hanging on a tree, but the latter isn't quite as festive for holiday cheer.

Yes, you can reject replacement items and get your money back. But if you're extremely picky about what items you want to receive, the better option typically offered by online grocery services is to simply ax substitutes entirely. Sure, you might end up with nothing, but at least you don't have to worry about some artificial intelligence algorithm thinking it's smarter than you.

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