Amazon Intends to Read Your Mind with Anticipatory Shipping

Amazon has acquired a patent for what it calls “anticipatory shipping,” a method the company may use to deliver packages to customers before they’ve even purchased the products. The idea is to predict which products customers want or need and eliminate the usual wait time that occurs between hitting “buy” online and receiving the package in person. The other possible effect of anticipatory shipping, if put into place, is that it might discourage consumers from going to brick-and-mortar stores.

According to The Wall Street Journal, the patent dictates that packages could “wait at the shippers’ hubs or on trucks until an order arrives.” Amazon would use previous orders, product searches, wish lists and shopping carts, among other things, to decide which products to ship.

Though it’s unclear whether Amazon plans to put anticipatory shipping into place any time soon, WSJ says the patent “demonstrates one way Amazon hopes to leverage its vast trove of customer data to edge out rivals.”

“The patent exemplifies a growing trend among technology and consumer firms to anticipate consumers’ needs, even before consumers do,” the article says. “Today, there are refrigerators that can tell when it’s time to buy more milk, smart televisions that predict which shows to record and Google’s Now software, which aims to predict users’ daily scheduling needs.”

In the patent, Amazon says the delay that occurs between purchasing a product and receiving it could dissuade customers from buying online. The company thinks anticipatory shipping would be particularly effective for products — like books — that some people want the day they’re released.

“Of course, Amazon’s algorithms might sometimes err, prompting costly returns,” WSJ says. “To minimize those costs, Amazon said it might consider giving customers discounts, or convert the unwanted delivery into a gift.” In the patent, Amazon says “delivering the package to the given customer as a promotional gift may be used to build goodwill.”