The dawn of fake retail

Scarce and abundant tech

In the early days of Information Technology, a mainframe was precious. Students stayed up until the middle of the night to feed punched cards into the machines, knowing that with a single error they’d have to start all over.

Punched Card by Chris Limb on Flickr (

Spotify’s fake artists

Spotify, with hundreds of millions of listeners and a low barrier to entry for artists, is a perfect example. Scammers clone popular songs, so you’ll find dozens of results for one song, listen to a knock-off, and line the coffers of a plagiarist.

Coming soon to speakers near you: DIY political debates that won’t burst your filter bubble.

A Bot starts selling phone cases

Someone unleashed an algorithm on Amazon’s marketplace, generating hundreds of iPhone cases that don’t exist. Most of the really egregious ones are gone now (but the link above has some examples.)

Who doesn’t want an orthopaedic compression bandage phone case?

Forget Fake News; welcome to Fake Retail

The real problem consumers face with this abundance is trust and curation. It’s hard to find what you’re after when an army of bots is trying to tailor their latest knock-offs to your desires. It’s hard to find serendipity. We’re all on a curve, and we’re all being overfitted.

Trying to watch John Oliver

Many Canadians who’ve wanted to watch popular shows in Canada quickly discover that their favorite programs—SNL, John Oliver, etc.—aren’t playable here. To satisfy our Northern Appetites for liberal news media, as soon as a show airs, armies of uploaders put it on YouTube, taking steps to circumvent copyright detection:

  • Sometimes they crop the frame
  • Other times they play the first couple of minutes of content, then splice in something unrelated.
  • Sometimes the video is just a still image with audio.
A cropped screen and an upload gets you 158K views.

No strong incentives to stop

It isn’t clear that retailers want to fix this. For Amazon, YouTube, or Spotify, more plays and more streams mean more money. On a streaming platform there’s even a chance more streams from unknown artists means less payouts for musicians, something Spotify is currently accused of.

What do we now value?

The death of the genuine article makes curation and provenance precious. Kevin Kelly talks about this when he urges creators to focus on veracity as a strategy. But at some point, the business value of curation will become far more significant than it is today.

Curation and vetting as a differentiation strategy

Self-proclaimed marketing gurus are always championing brand trust. When retail shelves feel like they need spam filters, there is a very real need for trust.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Alistair Croll

Alistair Croll

Writer, speaker, accelerant. Intersection of tech & society. Strata, Startupfest, Bitnorth, FWD50. Lean Analytics, Tilt the Windmill, HBS, Just Evil Enough.