The Very Real Appeal of Random


For all that we can spend hours searching for exactly the right item to buy, the appeal of buying something random is always there. When a site like Woot offers up random items to its audience, the sheer number of people willing to put down money for a box without any hint of what will be in it is incredible. Woot’s ‘Bag of Crap’ sales sell out within seconds and have even been known to crash servers.

Randomness is appealing, on a level that we don’t always expect. Of course, we don’t like all surprises — receiving something in the mail that we can’t track back to an original sender is more likely to feel creepy than exciting. But when that unexpectedness is balanced with a little forewarning or explanation, it can be a very good thing.

An Element of Trust

More and more successful businesses have a few bits of randomness built in. Consider the genre of subscription services that now mail their customers a box every month or so — without saying exactly what will be in the box ahead of time. Quarterly Co. is among the leading lights in this new field: the company puts together packages of items chosen by relatively famous contributors and mails them out to subscribers. I say ‘relatively famous’ because they include bloggers with large followings, CEOs that may not be well-known outside of their own niche and other ‘internet famous’ types. The mechanics that Quarterly Co follows mean that every three months, subscribers to a particular curator get a box in the mail — they don’t know what’s coming, but have some assurance that it’s awesome. It’s even possible for a person to subscribe to multiple contributors and get several bits of random on a regular basis.

Quarterly Co. has rapidly become very popular in certain circles: while the company doesn’t make too many details available, but even early on the company reported that it was adding new subscriptions every five minutes. I can only assume that speed has increased since then.

The reason for Quarterly Co’s success is not necessarily obvious. Sure, they’re offering what amounts to a gift box full of cool stuff from cool people on a regular basis — and who doesn’t like that idea? But the ease of trust that Quarterly Co. provides is crucial to the process. It’s simple to trust the company: they’ve clearly done this sort of thing before. Even better, Quarterly Co’s presence in the process means that the crazy artists and other creatives they’ve enlisted are going to send things that are appropriate. If I were to subscribe to someone whose name I’m familiar with, I may also be familiar with any pranks she’s pulled in the past. I might have some questions about the quality of the items a person might curate. Quarterly Co. eliminates any concern I could have in that direction.

The Surprise Business Model

While Quarterly Co. is taking a broad approach to what can be included in its subscriptions, offering some well-defined surprises is now a business model. My husband gets a package every month with five new inks for his fountain pen. He knows that he’ll get ink every time, but the colors and manufacturers are always a surprise. They aren’t randomly selected, but because there’s no interaction with the curator, the choices always feel a bit random on our end.

But these random selections lead to some good things, especially from the point of view of the ink seller who put together the ink subscription. As my husband has tried out a whole bunch of new inks, he’s found plenty that he wants more than the small sample that he’s already got. Not only is the subscription a money-maker, but it leads directly to follow up sales.

There are similar companies that send out samples exclusively in their packages, partnering with relevant companies to get products for free. There’s some serious flexibility in this business model in how someone can make money — and there’s plenty of business to be made. If you judge just based on the number of times a week I have to talk myself out of a new subscription, the companies involved barely have to work to make sales.

The Negligible Price Point

One of the reasons that these subscription services succeed, as well as other products that are sold with some randomness built in, is because of the low costs. We, as buyers, can’t justify paying high rates for something we don’t know we’ll be able to use or enjoy. We can, however, justifying a little bit of fun money for the right bit of randomness.

Quarterly Co. is at the higher end of random pricing, going occasionally as high as $50 per quarter. My husband’s inks are $10 per month (which is very cheap for the quantity of ink, if you don’t have a fountain pen addict in the house to set price points by). These companies target audiences for whom $10 or even $25 a month is easily forgettable. It’s almost low enough that the buyer can convince herself that a random package showing up is really a gift. And while I wouldn’t get a family member a ‘Bag of Crap,’ I would happily pay for a year’s subscription for some of those hard-to-shop-for relatives.

I’m well aware that an extra $10 per month isn’t a negligible expense for many people. And subscribing to multiple offers takes that amount higher very quickly. But for those demographics with higher incomes, buying something random can be seen as getting a surprise gift. Keeping those low price points are an excellent move, especially for anyone who can either get products inexpensively (or sometimes free in the case of samples) or already has sunk costs in inventory.

Buying Real Randomness

Darius Kazemi created Random Shopper, a bot with an Amazon account. It has a set spending limit, enforced with a gift card, but can buy absolutely random items off of Amazon and have them shipped to Kazemi. In an interview with BoingBoing, Kazemi explained that the bot’s purpose was “to see if somehow those purchases feel more or less meaningful than something he would have conscientiously chosen himself; a way, if you will, of exploring his attachment to that ‘crap.'”

He’s getting the full experience that many other companies emulate — no curation or pseudorandomness here. I admit that I’d be willing to buy a couple of gift cards for a bot like this, just to see what comes out. There’s an appeal to just pulling the lever and seeing what happens. It’s the same instinct that drives gambling, except that each of these options actually always results in a win, at least as far as getting something for the money.

Kazemi is getting exposed to music, videos and books he would never have encountered otherwise. There’s a definite value to the randomness he’s added to his life. The fact that the bot has the constant ability to surprise him may not work for everyone, though: most consumers like a little constraint on the subscriptions and other random products that they purchase. But for people who are able to move outside of those constraints, Kazemi’s bot may prove incredibly attractive.

The Benefit of Surprise

I don’t have any statistics to prove that people who regularly face unexpected situations generally do better in life, but anecdotally, it’s true. Such people are more likely to explore new ideas on their own, adapt more effectively to different situations and be able to handle new concepts. There’s an upper limit to just how many shocks a system can take, of course, but the ability to cope is something that can be exercised and improved.

Since unexpected situations in general can improve our abilities to deal with problems, there’s a clear benefit to adding some randomness to our lives, preferably with as few constraints as we feel comfortable with. It’s probably not possible to add enough randomness to a day with a subscription to a monthly delivery of ink samples, but it may be a step in the right direction. Those ink samples, after all, can get you out of the comfort zone of using the same ink, day after day.

Consider how you can cultivate surprises in your own life, as well as in others. You may find a new business model of your own, once you take a walk on the random side.

Image by Flickr user Daniel Dionne