Operations, Information and Decisions Papers

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Journal Article

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Publication Source

Management Science





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This paper examines the effect of recommender systems on the diversity of sales. Two anecdotal views exist about such effects. Some believe recommenders help consumers discover new products and thus increase sales diversity. Others believe recommenders only reinforce the popularity of already-popular products. This paper seeks to reconcile these seemingly incompatible views. We explore the question in two ways. First, modeling recommender systems analytically allows us to explore their path-dependent effects. Second, turning to simulation, we increase the realism of our results by combining choice models with actual implementations of recommender systems. We arrive at three main results. First, some well-known recommenders can lead to a reduction in sales diversity. Because common recommenders (e.g., collaborative filters) recommend products based on sales and ratings, they cannot recommend products with limited historical data, even if they would be rated favorably. In turn, these recommenders can create a rich-get-richer effect for popular products and vice versa for unpopular ones. This bias toward popularity can prevent what may otherwise be better consumer-product matches. That diversity can decrease is surprising to consumers who express that recommendations have helped them discover new products. In line with this, result two shows that it is possible for individual-level diversity to increase but aggregate diversity to decrease. Recommenders can push each person to new products, but they often push users toward the same products. Third, we show how basic design choices affect the outcome, and thus managers can choose recommender designs that are more consistent with their sales goals and consumers' preferences.


IT policy and management, electronic commerce, application contexts/sectors, IT impacts on industry and market structure, marketing, advertising and media



Date Posted: 27 November 2017

This document has been peer reviewed.