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One of my sisters-in-law (I have several) runs a frame shop. A trip to my wife’s hometown often means stopping by her sister’s shop and hanging out while mats are being cuts and frames assembled. So I was curious then to read an essay to read in the New York Times about running a frame shop — even more so given its title, The True Price of Customer Service (Aug 21).

The essay is written by the founder of Artists Frame Service, which is based here in Chicago and has generally been very successful. It has been open for more than three decades and (according to the article) is 20 times bigger than the average US frame shop. Part of how it got that way is by promising faster service. Since its founding, it has promised to turn around orders in a week. Consistently delivering on that, however, creates operational challenges.

What I was really asking about was the one-week turnaround: Was it worth the trouble? Did it matter enough to customers? I was asking because it is not an easy commitment to keep. If someone orders framing on Monday afternoon, it will not go into production before Tuesday morning. And it has to be done by Friday for it to be inspected and wrapped and put in the pickup shelves by the following Monday. That means we really only have three days to get it done.

The challenge has always been that some weeks are so busy that my staff members have to work 10 or more hours of overtime, while other weeks are slower and their hours are cut. I considered switching to a 10-day turnaround. This would effectively double the amount of time that we have to complete an order. But I worried: Was this the equivalent of cutting Samson’s hair and losing the magic?

Let me start by saying that in terms of operations, this is a really nice problem to think about. It highlights some important points about managing processes to provide fast service. Continue Reading »

Wal-Mart has had a tough go over the last few years. Sure, they are still a huge force in retailing but they have run into a variety of operational problems largely related to in-store execution. (See. for example, this post.) Now the Wall Street Journal reports that Wal-Mart is gearing up for the holidays by trying to address some customer service pain points (Returning to Wal-Mart: Human Cashiers, Aug 15).

In an attempt to lure more customers this holiday season, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is promising to staff each of its cash register from the day after Thanksgiving through the days just before Christmas during peak shopping times.

The move, called the “checkout promise,” is aimed at addressing one of the retailer’s biggest customer complaints: long waits in checkout lines, which can cause even more frustration when positions aren’t fully staffed. The pledge will cover hours typically on weekend afternoons but which can vary by store.

“We feel good about price and having the top gifts of the season, so the next priority is about getting customers in and out of the stores quickly,” Duncan Mac Naughton, Wal-Mart’s chief merchandising officer, said in an interview. “Taking the possibility of waiting in long lines off the table will attract more people into stores.” …

On Thursday the retail giant said it allocated more hours to the front end of the store, to overnight stocking, and to deli and bakery to improve customer service during the most recent quarter.

Here are two questions that are worth thinking about. Continue Reading »

If you live here in the States, you may never have heard of the telecommunications company EE. But they are a major player in the United Kingdom with brands like Orange and T-Mobile. According to their Wikipedia page, they have around 28 million customers. EE has a new service offering that I must admit is kind of intriguing. Here is how it is described on their web page.

Priority answer service

From 6 August 2014 we’re also introducing a priority answer service. It’s available to all customers on pay monthly and SIM only plans.

Our priority answer service gives you the choice to get support even faster for just 50p per call when you call 150 and want to speak to customer services. It’s always available so if there’s a queue, you can be moved towards the front – ideal if you’re in a hurry.

How much it costs

The charge for this is 50p. If you’re on a plan that includes standard charging for customer services at 25p, you’ll only be charged an extra 25p for priority answer – so the total for the call with priority is 50p.

The 50p charge applies regardless of how long the call lasts.

To save the Americans the trouble of Googling this, 50p works out to about 84¢. So what do you think happens when customers are given the chance to jump the queue for less than a buck?

Continue Reading »

Here is an interesting factoid for you: 24% of all the vehicles manufactured right now are built on just ten platforms. What’s more, by the end of the decade that number is expected to grow to 30%. The number comes from an Automotive News article that looks at some of the consequences of the trend (With the push for standard parts, quality is key, Aug 6).

First, why automakers are trying to move in this direction is clear. Being able to build multiple model off one basic platform saves a ton of money in product development as well as tooling and build manufacturing facilities. Further, they benefit from a bit of risk pooling; if one model is not selling particularly well, that may be offset by another that can be built at the same plant. Thus, even if a model slumps, all that expensive capacity is till being used. (See this post from last fall on how Ford is cutting its number of platforms from 15 to 9.) Globalization also plays a part in this. What kinds of vehicles sell well might vary across different continents, but if European, Asian and North American models can all be built on the same platforms, manufacturers with a global footprint can be ever more cost competitive.

But what about suppliers? With purchased components making up a significant chunk of the cost of a vehicle, car makers would like standardization there. In a perfect world, you would have the same break system on every model built on a platform, but that brings challenges.

“The requirement that we face is clearly to develop products from the outset in such a way that they can be used in all the platform derivatives without the expense of making changes,” said Sabine Woytowicz, regional quality director at Valeo in Germany.

But with mass standardization, a part with a quality problem can now be supplied to millions of vehicles. That puts a premium on quality. …

Martin Thier, director of corporate quality management at the Mahle Group, said: “When obtaining an order, we check its feasibility for both product development and manufacturing even more closely.”

It comes down to “knowing precisely what you do, what you can do and how good you are at it.”

For example, he said, there is now a more intense interest in investigating how an inconsequential error in one part would produce an effect in a different component.

Continue Reading »

Would you be more likely to go to fast food restaurant if it guaranteed how long you wait at the drive thru? Some McDonald’s in South Florida are doing just that (McDonald’s offers a 60-second lunch guarantee on weekdays, Aug 4).

McDonald’s guests at participating South Florida restaurants will receive timers when paying for their order in the drive-thru. The timers are then returned to the McDonald’s crew member when their food is presented. This guarantee promises that customers will receive their meal within 60 seconds of paying for it, or receive a complimentary lunch item on a future visit.

The guarantee doesn’t apply all day. Indeed, it is only in effect for an hour — but it is the hour that matters, noon to one.

Let me acknowledge upfront that this is clearly a gimmick. McDonald’s has been in a funk and their drive thru times have been climbing (along with the time of many in the industry). So this offers customers some assurance and maybe puts a little competitive pressure on some of the other players in the industry.

But as gimmicks go, I kind of like this one. Continue Reading »

I have never really given T.J. Maxx much thought. I can’t recall the last time I was in one of their stores, and going to T.J. Maxx has not been an obvious choice to me since I was in high school (and that tells you more about the shopping options in Manchester, NH, in the early 80’s than anything else). But now Fortune has an article singing the praises of T.J. Maxx — or more accurate its parent company TJX, which also owns Marshalls among other retail chains (Is T.J. Maxx the best retail store in the land?, Jul 24). The article is full of all sorts of interesting nuggets (TJX is basically the successor company of Zayre, another retailer from my childhood, who knew?!) as well as laying out seven “secrets” from the company playbook. Some of these are about positioning in the eyes of the customer (e.g., Put real treasure in the treasure hunt) or management talent (Find a CEO who gets retail). But many of their points go right to the stores operations and how it manages its supply chain.

The off-price business is a volume game: selling a ton of goods and selling them fast. The measure of speed here is how quickly a company turns over its inventory: TJX does that every 55 days, vs. 85 for its peer group, according to Morningstar. Indeed, the company is structured to whisk items through its distribution centers and stores—and a lot of items they are: TJX shipped some 2 billion units to its stores in its 2014 fiscal year (which ended on Feb. 1), up from 1.6 billion in fiscal 2010.

Former employees say that the stuff moves so rapidly that merchandise is often sold before TJX has paid its vendors for it. The busiest stores can take daily delivery of product, which employees put out on the floor right away—a “door to floor” approach that cuts down on the amount of space needed for backroom storage. Sources say items typically go on markdown if the turn rate is slower than about seven weeks, which also contributes to the rapid flow.

Continue Reading »

How to get people onto planes is an interesting topic. It is a process most of us go through with some regularity and it is hard not to think that there has to be a better way. There are many articles in the popular press explaining that in many ways airlines are doing it wrong (for an example, see this recent Quartz article). Academics like publishing papers on new methodologies that purport to work better — even if their approach is at best whimsical (would an airline assign seats based on who has carry on luggage?). But what if the secret to a smooth boarding process was really in the gate area not in the jet bridge or plane aisle?

That essentially is the premise of some work reported in the Wall Street Journal (In Tests, Scientists Try to Change Behaviors, Jul 28).

At the Copenhagen airport, Dr. Hansen recently deployed a team of three young researchers to mill about a gate in terminal B. The trio was dressed casually in jeans and wore backpacks. They blended in with the passengers, except for the badges they wore displaying airport credentials, and the clipboards and pens they carried to record how the boarding process unfolds. …

The researchers are mapping out gate-seating patterns for a total of about 500 flights. Some early observations: The more people who are standing, the more chaotic boarding tends to be. Copenhagen airport seating areas are designed for groups, even though most travelers come solo or in pairs. Solo flyers like to sit in a corner and put their bag on an adjacent seat. Pairs of travelers tend to perch anywhere as long as they can sit side-by-side.

For the next stage of the project, the airport has given the researchers permission to change seating configurations at some terminal gates to figure out which arrangements are most likely to encourage greater numbers of passengers to sit down and help make the boarding process more orderly. Among possible ideas the team is considering are expanding the number of spots that could encourage single travelers to sit and placing signs with updates about the status of the boarding in key locations.

When people are uncertain about the process, they tend to follow each other, and that can lead to a large group of people clogging up the boarding, Dr. Hansen says.

Continue Reading »

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