The customer is always right is a phrase pioneered by Harry Gordon Selfridge, John Wanamaker and Marshall Field. These men were successful retailers and learned early in their careers that the success of their stores depended on the happiness of their customers.

This idea reflected a notion popularized in the early 1900s and became relevant in the 20th century. This phrase particularly stood out during a time when misrepresentation was rife and “caveat emptor” was a common legal maxim. Caveat emptor puts all of the responsibility on the customer.

This question is really interesting as it stands on the fundamental assumption of the “free” will of a person.

It is my own decision whether I want to pay for a service/product, based on my feelings.

The funny thing is, we do have a Will, but, is it really “free”?

Till the end of 20th century, this assumption was absolutely true. But at the dawn of 21st century, with the emergence of powerful statistical machine algorithms, this core assumptions takes a severe hit.

Scientific and medical literature suggests that a person’s feeling is technically an output of various complex biochemical algorithm which, when backed by the evolutionary memory, generates “feelings” and “hunch” rather than probabilistic numbers.

Meanwhile, the external machine learning algorithms are slowly but steadily getting exposed to our biochemical algorithm through the eBooks we read on kindle, the search we do on google, the stuff we buy on amazon, the posts we submit on Instagram or the partner we chose through tinder.

I may read Tolstoy on a kindle, but the kindle knows on which pages I paused, I bookmarked, I delayed, or whether I even finished. From such simple statistics backed up by million such user datapoint, the machine algorithm can generate latent meanings that even we as an individual customer might not be aware of about ourselves.

So the “free” of free will goes for a toss, where an external algorithm, with sufficient time and resource, can know and manipulate the biochemical algorithm inside us by simple recommendations and subtle influence.

So, to rephrase the question:

Are the 21st century customers always right, when their “free” will can be manipulated by an external algorithm?


1. A Global View Of ‘The Customer Is Always Right’, Forbes,Blake Morgan,Sep 24, 2018

2. 21 Lessons for the 21st Century,Yuval Noah Harari,Aug 2018

Article originally published at VGSoM IITKGP Executive MBA Digital Interaction Platform