Many years ago, I worked as an office assistant in my college dorm. One of the responsibilities was letting residents know if they had received a UPS package. Anything sent via regular mail went to the campus post office where we were all assigned a box. Since UPS couldn’t deliver to the post office box, it came to the dorm where someone would get around to writing out a paper form so the student could be notified. It wasn’t a particularly efficient process, but once you got past the start of the school year, there weren’t too many packages to deal with.

But times have changed! The Daily Campus (of the University of Connecticut) reports that UConn’s mailrooms are getting overwhelmed (Mailroom backup continues as officials search for solutions, Oct 5).

The number of packages received by the university for residential students has been increasing drastically in recent years, in large part due to the rise in online purchases, Assistant Director of Building Services Tracy, told The Daily Campus in an earlier article. As a result, there is a growing need to find long-term solutions beyond hiring more staff.

According to Cree, more than 100 student workers are involved in work related to the residential mailrooms.

In order to fix some immediate problems, plans have been made to modify existing mailrooms in the next few weeks. These alterations are intended to allow packages to be processed much more efficiently. …

In addition to these immediate changes that are to be put in place, UConn is also considering other ways to efficiently deal with the influx of packages and alter the current infrastructure to better reflect the needs of students. …

“We have been discussing the possibility of creating central locations for sorting, but also discussing distribution systems to get the packages delivered sooner,” [executive director of Building Services Logan] Trimble said.

The earlier article referenced above claims that UConn is receiving 3,000 packages per day. The Business Insider article on UConn’s mailroom woes notes that the school has about 31,000 students. Some of those presumably live off campus and have their Amazon sent to their apartments so we are probably looking at over 10% of on-campus students getting packages every day. I am glad my dorm assistant days are behind.

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Call center agents often sound robotic — and that may well be by design. Having agents follow a script helps keep service times predictable, supports delivering consistent service, and possibly reduces training costs. The same logic holds for other forms of electronic customer service interactions — be they chat sessions, emails, or Facebook posts.

But not every firm follows this model, relying instead on unscripted interactions to build relationships with customers. Among these is Dollar Shave Club, a subscription razor service with 2.2 million members (Why Dollar Shave Club invests in unscripted customer service, Los Angeles Times, Sep 26).

The company employs about three dozen member service agents who answer phones and emails, conduct online chats and reply to queries on social media — all while channeling the brand’s distinctly playful and irreverent tone.

The strategy isn’t easy. Training takes weeks. Finding the right personalities is challenging. It would be cheaper and less hassle to contract with a third-party customer service firm, which Dollar Shave Club does to complement its in-house team.

But online retailers, including pioneers Zappos and Bonobos, have found the investment in unscripted customer service worthwhile. The interactions, they say, feel more authentic and help humanize e-commerce brands that are, by their very nature, faceless.

So when does a scriptless approach pay off? Continue Reading »

We have written in the past about some of the challenges of staffing retailer operations. Given competitive markets and an ample supply of labor, many firms have employed staffing models that may be kindly described as aggressive — although some might prefer to call them abusive (see, for example, here, here and here). In essences, firms want to avoid overstaffing but also don’t want customer service to suffer. Employees are caught in the middle of those goals as employers demand more and more flexibility from them.

But to some extent that has been changing. Labor markets have tightened and regulators have begun asking questions. Consequently, firms have backed off some of their more noxious practices (at least in some jurisdictions). Among the leaders here has been Starbucks. Last year it committed  to posting worker’s schedules at least 10 days in advance and to giving workers more consistent schedules. Further it said it would no longer have workers doing “clopenings” — closing the story one night only to have to be there for the opening the following morning. As the New York Times tells it, the transition hasn’t been so smooth (Starbucks Falls Short After Pledging Better Labor Practices, Sep 23).

But Starbucks has fallen short on these promises, according to interviews with five current or recent workers at several locations across the country. Most complained that they often receive their schedules one week or less in advance, and that the schedules vary substantially every few weeks. Two said their stores still practiced clopenings.

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Apple is apparently getting serious about cars. It came out this week that building an electric car is now a “committed project” at Apple (Apple Targets Electric-Car Shipping Date for 2019, Wall Street Journal, Sep 21). But that raises the question of who would actually build it for them. It’s not that Apple has never made stuff before, but recent years they have generally leaned on the likes of Hon Hai Precision Industry (aka Foxconn) to assemble phones and laptops and such on their behalf.

That got me thinking about a quote from Carlos Ghosn, who runs both Nissan and Renault, that appeared last week in Automotive News (Ghosn sees tough time ahead for industry disruptors, Sep 18).

Renault-Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn said aggressive hiring of auto industry executives by software companies shows how vital it is for new players to understand manufacturing and vehicle design. …

The complexity of cars means it will be tough for new players to enter the auto industry. ..

“That is one of the reasons you are seeing the outsiders massively hiring engineers from our industry. Why? Because they need to understand the product more in order to make the transformation they think they can make,” Ghosn said at a press conference here Wednesday.

Ghosn is not the only one thinking about what it would take for a tech giant like Apple or Google to get into the auto business (Apple and Google Create a Buzz at Frankfurt Motor Show, New York Times, Sep 17).

“What is important for us is that the brain of the car, the operating system, is not iOS or Android or someone else but it’s our brain,” Dieter Zetsche, the chief executive of Daimler, the maker of Mercedes vehicles, told reporters at the car show. IOS is Apple’s operating system for mobile devices.

“We do not plan to become the Foxconn of Apple,” Mr. Zetsche said, referring to the Taiwanese-owned company that manufactures iPhones in China.

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UPS and 3D printing

When you think about United Parcel Service (if you ever do), you like think about the big brown truck that brings boxes to your house. But UPS does much more than deliver e-commerce purchases to residential addresses. They also have a significant business handling supply chain logistics. That business is potentially threatened by the evolving technology of additive manufacturing. Who needs a logistic purveyor when parts and components can be reduced to a file, sent around the world, and then printed at its point of use?

That concern has led UPS to experiment with 3D printing, investing in a start up and setting up a facility at UPS’s hub in Louisville. They currently have 100 printers and are planing to to expand to 900 (UPS Tests a 3-D Printing Service, Wall Street Journal, Sep 18). Just what are they doing with these printers?

UPS expects more companies will migrate some production to 3-D printing from traditional manufacturing on an aggressive growth curve, according to Rimas Kapeskas, head of UPS’s strategic enterprise fund. And UPS is also talking with customers about taking on a bigger role as a light manufacturer using 3-D printers. …

Late last month, the operation received an order for 40 mounting brackets for paper towel dispensers from a division of Georgia-Pacific LLC that makes dispensers, Dixie cups and cutlery. CloudDDM printed the mounts and UPS shipped them to a Georgia-Pacific engineer by the next morning. The brackets were slated for a month-long “stress test,” said Michael Dunn, senior vice president of innovation development for Georgia-Pacific.

Whirlpool turned to the operation recently when its own 3-D printers were all occupied. The maker of Maytag and KitchenAid products uses the printing method for prototypes of items like trays for refrigerators and venting systems for dryers, as a way to test parts on smaller scale.

The article also reports that UPS has used the service itself to produce parts for its fleet of planes. Continue Reading »

Many, many years ago, I began collecting music. By the time I was in college, I had several crates of records that meant helping me move was a good way to hurt your back. I finally broke down and switched to CDs when the Replacement’s All Shook Down was released only as a CD. Of course, now CDs have given way to files and streaming while my old LPs gather dust in the basement. But vinyl records are making a comeback — they now account for 9% of sales for music sold in a physical form. Last year that amounted to 13 million records — the highest total in 25 years — which has led to some interesting production issues (Vinyl LP Frenzy Brings Record-Pressing Machines Back to Life, New York Times, Sep 14).

Independent Record Pressing is an attempt to solve one of the riddles of today’s music industry: how to capitalize on the popularity of vinyl records when the machines that make them are decades old, and often require delicate and expensive maintenance. The six presses at this new 20,000-square-foot plant, for example, date to the 1970s. …

But the few dozen plants around the world that press the records have strained to keep up with the exploding demand, resulting in long delays and other production problems, executives and industry observers say. It is now common for plants to take up to six months to turn around a vinyl order — an eternity in an age when listeners are used to getting music online instantly.

Here’s a video that goes with the article.

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Managing line shoppers

I must confess that I have never really been enthralled by Trader Joe’s. I have never lived close by one so it was a convenient option for shopping nor have I ever been desperately loyal to their private label products. But there certainly are people who love Trader Joe’s and their stores can be quite busy. As consequence, the check out lines at some locations can be a special sort of experience. McSweeny’s offers a parody “Trader Joe’s Waiting in Line App” asking user to rate their overall shopping experience on the following scale:

  • 4 stars: Took a while, but got what I needed.
  • 3 stars: Eerily friendly cashier weirded me out; there was hardly any bagged lettuce left.
  • 2 stars: Constant gridlock. Teeth gritted the whole time.
  • 1 star: Anarchy. Like the ending of Lord of the Flies.

What does the ending of Lord of the Flies look like? Check out BuzzFeed’s “The Nightmare Of Shopping At Trader Joe’s In Manhattan.” It’s one thing to have to mark where the line starts; it’s another to need a sign marking the middle of the line so clueless (or super-aggressive) shoppers don’t cut the queue.

What then is a shopper to do? According to a recent Slate piece, the answer is to shop while in line (The Six Rules of Line-Shopping at Trader Joe’s, Aug 24).

Not long ago I was waiting in line at the smaller-than-average and perpetually mobbed Trader Joe’s near Union Square in Manhattan when I noticed the shopper in front of me had come up with a clever, possibly devious solution to the crowd problem. Upon entering the store, she claimed a shopping cart and staked out a spot in the checkout line (which snaked around almost the entire perimeter of the store). She proceeded to do all her shopping from her place in line: picking up produce as the line crept through the produce aisle, frozen goods as it passed by the freezer case, cereal when it neared the cereal section.

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