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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A quick update on Wednesday’s post on running queues last-in, first-out. First, the Washington Post had a story on this as well (Researchers have discovered a better way to wait in line, and you’re going to hate it, Sep 9) and to their credit they get the gist of the model right; the fact that customers value getting served early is key to their results.

Second, I was asked to speak about this article on an NPR station out in California (AirTalk, KPCC, Sep 10). You can hear it here.

Suppose you are waiting in line for something. How would you expect the service provider to take people out of the line?

Unless you are at some place like an emergency room where different customers have clearly different needs and different levels of urgency, you might expect that customers are served in the order of their arrival — that is, a first-in, first-out discipline is used. That’s a natural and common assumption (at least in the US). It is also makes headlines like “Have we been queuing all wrong? Lines move faster if the person at the back is served first, study finds” (Daily Mail, Aug 14) or “Danish researchers have an enraging proposal to speed up queues: Serve the last person first” (Quartz, Sep 7) attention grabbing . Here is the crux of the Daily Mail article:

A group of Danish researchers have discovered a rather unexpected solution to the long lines of people that can appear ahead of new iPhone launches or to get into sporting events.

They say serving the person at the back of the queue first can actually make lines move faster – something which may horrify British and Americans who adhere to the strict etiquette of waiting your turn.

Instead it suggests people like the Italians, who often frustrate other tourists with their lack of regard for the order of a queue, may have been on to something after all.

The findings could put an end to traditions which have become almost British institutions such as queuing to get tickets for Wimbledon or the Proms.

So what is going on here? Is serving customer last-in, first-out really the answer to queuing woes? Continue Reading »

It’s been a rough week for some IT guys. United Airlines, the New York Stock Exchange, and TD Ameritrade all had very public network failures. So far, no one has claimed that anything nefarious was going on. That is, these shortcomings were not the result of any cyber attacks or hacking attempts. Rather, they appear to have been the result of failure in standard operating procedures.

How can such a thing happen?

To some degree, such failures are not so much a question of if, but of when. No system is perfect and problems of one sort or another are inevitable. The question is what is an acceptable rate of failure. That is, if the NYSE cannot be guaranteed to be always working perfectly, what is an acceptable rate at which to have disruptions?

The Wall Street Journal had an article that somewhat relates to this point (What We Learned From the NYSE, United Airlines Tech Outages, Jul 9). The article notes that old-fashion land line telephones had an uptime of 99.999% — that is, Ma Bell would leave you without a working phone only about five minutes out of every year. Of course, old school phone systems were regulated and nudge to that level of reliability by their overseers. Unregulated, private networks aren’t held quite to the same standard. The article claims that firms are generally unwilling to invest to the level that would raise their reliability to the level of a land line. It also notes that there are other things going on.

Today’s problems with reliability are more fundamental, a reflection of the complexity of contemporary networks, the volume of data, the pace of change, insufficient organizational and cultural practices, and a legacy of arcane and poorly written business software that traditionally put little emphasis on usability or customer experience.

Outages persist because of the interdependency of computer systems, fueled by the rise of digital services across all industries, particularly those with customer-facing software such as mobile apps, according to former NYSE Euronext CIO Paul Cassell, now CIO of Pico Quantitative Trading LLC.

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IKEA has big growth plans. According to the Wall Street Journal, it aims to increase its revenue by €50 billion by 2020 — 74% higher than its 2014 revenue (IKEA Can’t Stop Obsessing About Its Packaging, Jun 17). Part of that growth is going to come from expanding into new markets, some may come from new formats, but a lot of it has to come from selling more stuff through existing stores. And that is going to require finding ways to cut prices to move more volume.

That’s where design comes in. IKEA is reviewing products in order to find ways to reduce their production and — importantly — their distribution costs. As this graphic demonstrates, this is pretty much a war on air.


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How to get people on to planes is something we have covered many times on this blog. However, it is always interesting when some airline tries something new. That gets us to Delta’s Early Valet (Airlines try to save time with speedier boarding process, Associated Press, Jun 1).

Delta’s Early Valet service will offer to have airline employees take carry-on bags at the gate and put them in the bins above assigned seats. The airline wants to see if its own workers can load the bins faster than passengers.

The service began Monday on about two dozen flights, and that number is expected to rise steadily during June, Delta spokeswoman Morgan Durrant said.

Early Valet will be offered through August on some departures from Delta’s busiest airports — Atlanta, New York, Los Angeles, Detroit, Minneapolis, Salt Lake City and Seattle.

It will be available only on flights that typically have a high number of vacationers. Presumably, business travelers know how to board a plane efficiently. Specially tagged bags will be stowed on the plane before boarding begins, Durrant said.

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