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Is the express lane in the grocery store always the fastest lane?

That’s a great question and its the subject of a “Dear Mona” column over on FiveThirtyEight (Dear Mona, Which Is The Fastest Check-Out Lane At The Grocery Store?, Oct 16). Mona attacks this question by heading into the queuing theory weeds.

I couldn’t find much research on express lanes specifically, but one paper from Amsterdam found the reduction in wait times for express-lane customers didn’t offset the overall increase in wait times for everyone. Maybe life would be easier if the supermarket didn’t have an express lane — or, better yet, if it got rid of multiple lines altogether and had all customers join a single infinitely sprawling line where there were no winners and losers. That might sound nightmarish, but the math actually suggests it would be anything but.

That math comes from queuing theory, a subject of study that’s been around ever since Danish mathematician Agner Krarup Erlang discovered a method for managing telephone traffic in 1909. To answer your question, I’ve had to take a crash course in (more modern) queuing theory, including examining formulae that calculate how average wait times at the grocery store vary depending on the type of line you join.

I should state upfront Mona on the whole acquits herself quite well on this. But there are a couple of points worth mentioning. First, there in fact supermarkets that run with a single queue, like this Hannaford’s in West Lebanon, NH.

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As you can see, that singe serpentine queue ends up chewing up a lot of space at the front of the store. That’s a lot of real estate to give up when you only have two people in line. As we have written about before, that is only one of the complications of having a single queue in a grocery setting.

But let’s suppose for the moment that we can get a single queue to work. Is that in fact the best way to run a supermarket’s checkout? (more…)

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Marriott has been in the news this week for launching new program to prod its guests into leaving tips for its cleaning staffs. The hotel chain is not acting alone on this. It is working with Maria Shriver’s non-profit called A Woman’s Nation (AWN) to highlight the difficulties faced by hotel cleaning staff. Here is a bit from AWN’s website about the program.

A Woman’s Nation (AWN), together with Marriott International (NASDAQ: MAR), announced today that Marriott International will be the first partner in AWN’s The Envelope Please™ initiative, which is designed to encourage and enable hotel guests to express their gratitude by leaving tips and notes of thanks for hotel room attendants in designated envelopes provided in hotel rooms.

Hotel room attendants often go unnoticed, as they silently care for the millions of travelers who are on the road at any given time. Because hotel guests do not always see or interact with room attendants, their hard work is many times overlooked when it comes to tipping. The Envelope Please makes leaving them a gratuity simple and secure.

Or as a headline in New York magazine summarized the program: Multi-Billion-Dollar Hotel Chain Encourages You to Tip Its Workers

There is a no question in my mind that being a hotel maid is a hard way to make a living — particularly at nicer hotels like the typical Marriott. Guests want their room serviced on their schedule; management wants workers to be efficient and service rooms as quickly as possible; and if all goes well, the room attendant gets no real recognition. Combine that with low entry requirements (basically a clean background check and the ability to do physical work), and you get low pay. Tips then would be much appreciated. Even if a maid only gets two dollars per room and services just two rooms an hour, that extra four bucks would be a significant percentage increase. According to the Washington Post, “maids and housekeepers earned a median salary of $19,780, or approximately $9.51 per hour, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But is tipping room attendants a good idea? (more…)

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When was the last time you called a business number, got put on hold and heard dead silence? In all likelihood it was some time ago. So why play music when customers are forced to wait? It’s not like anyone really enjoys hearing pabulum played at the highest fidelity permitted your phone’s speaker so there is a real question here for why firms should go through the effort. Slate has an article that tries to get at this question (Your Call Is Important to Us, Sep 8). If you prefer to listen instead of read, here is an NPR interview with the article’s author.

The first thing to recognize is that playing something for callers placed on hold aimed to solve a practical problem: If all you here is nothing, how do you know that the call is still connected?

But in the spring of 1962, an application appeared in the U.S. Patent Office, humbly titled “Telephone Hold Program System.” “In the course of receiving telephone calls,” it began, a bit grandly, before settling into the problem at hand: What to do about that dead silence the caller endured while calls were transferred, their respective parties chased down? Operators were supposed to check in again on callers who had been waiting; but what if they got busy? “In any event,” the application went on, “listening to a completely unresponsive instrument is tedious and calls often are abandoned altogether or remade which leads to annoyance and a waste of time and money.”

So the thought was that using music could improve customer service and operation efficiency. People would be more willing to hang on the line and thus would not need to call back later. Does that actually work? (more…)

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Airlines compete, in part, by offering lots of origin-destination pairs. Not matter in which backwater burg you reside, they strive to get you to every equally lonely outpost. That might overstate the case, but most airlines try to offer options that connect most reasonably sized cities. Most airlines consequently favor hub-and-spoke configurations for their networks that funnel passengers from all over into a limited set of points (like Chicago and Houston) before heading back out to a range of cities.

But how should an airline arrange its flight into a hub? One option is to bunch arrivals closely together so that departures can similarly be bunched together. Call that peaked scheduling. Alternatively, the airline can have a smoother flow of planes coming in. Arrivals to a hub are spread across the morning as opposed to, say, having a large number of planes land between 9:00 and 10:00.

Peaked scheduling was used by most airlines for many years but has been on the outs for the last decade or so. Now, however, it is making a comeback (Airlines Create Rush Hours, Crowds and Full Flights, Sep 10, Wall Street Journal).

Instead of spacing flights evenly throughout the day, American in August started bunching them together. The change restores an old format of “peak” scheduling, grouping flights into busy flying times followed by lulls when gates are nearly empty. After Miami International, American next year will “re-peak” schedules at its largest hubs in Chicago and Dallas-Fort Worth. …

In Miami on a typical weekday, 42 flights depart between 9 and 10 a.m. Then between 10 and 11 a.m., only a handful are scheduled to take off. The process repeats during the day with 10 “banks” of flights that fill about 45 gates at a time.

The interesting part of this is that a peaked versus non-peaked schedule is really a trade off between customer service and operating cost. (more…)

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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. (more…)

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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. (more…)

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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?

(more…)

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