Posts Tagged ‘Self service’

I love self-service checkout, but it is again under attack. Here in Chicago, Jewel-Osco (one of the major local supermarket chains) is pulling self-service checkout lanes from some of its stores (Jewel scrapping self-checkout at some stores, Chicago Tribune, Sep 25). Their stated goal is to “reconnect personally with all of its customers.” Now the Wall Street Journal is piling on with an article declaring that computers just aren’t up for the job of letting people buy green beans (Humans 1, Robots 0, Oct 6).

The human supermarket checker is superior to the self-checkout machine in almost every way. The human is faster. The human has a more pleasing, less buggy interface. The human doesn’t expect me to remember or look up codes for produce, she bags my groceries, and unlike the machine, she isn’t on hair-trigger alert for any sign that I might be trying to steal toilet paper. Best of all, the human does all the work while I’m allowed to stand there and stupidly stare at my phone, which is my natural state of being. …

In a recent research paper called “Dancing With Robots,” the economists Frank Levy and Richard Murnane point out that computers replace human workers only when machines meet two key conditions. First, the information necessary to carry out the task must be put in a form that computers can understand, and second, the job must be routine enough that it can be expressed in a series of rules.

Supermarket checkout machines meet the second of these conditions, but they fail on the first. They lack proper information to do the job a human would do. To put it another way: They can’t tell shiitakes from Shinola. Instead of identifying your produce, the machine asks you, the customer, to type in a code for every leafy green in your cart. Many times you’ll have to look up the code in an on-screen directory. If a human checker asked you to remind him what that bunch of the oblong yellow fruit in your basket was, you’d ask to see his boss.

Let’s take this in two parts. First, if people prefer a conventional check out experience because that allows them to zone out then I have to wonder how Jewel’s plan to reconnect with its customers is going to work. I remember as a kid my mom having what seemed like endless conversations with cashiers. Of course, we were in a relatively small town and most of the women (they were virtually all woman) working the registers had either gone to high school with my mom or had a sibling who did. Now we live in a more class divided society. I suspect that none of the cashiers at my local Jewel are actually from the neighborhood or that the store’s staffing policies actually build in time for cashiers and customers to catch up on how their respective in-laws are doing.

But what of the claim that the information needed to run checkouts cannot be simply encoded for computers? (more…)

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Yesterday, we looked at how Disney was taking on lines; today, Home Depot is up. Fast Company has a brief article on what the home-improvement chain is doing to keep customers moving through its stores (Home Depot Innovates Customer Checkouts, Apr 16). The article points to four things (which are numbered on the diagram below):



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How should airlines get passengers through airports with minimal delay? One possibility is to provide loads of capacity. There are two ways to do that. One is hire lots of staff or put out lots of kiosks. That requires both money and space. The Wall Street Journal reports (The Trump Card at Check-In, Dec 29) that Qantas has found an alternative way to expand check-in capacity on its domestic routes: Use technology to greatly reduce the processing time so the same number of kiosks can process far more customers. This graphic summarizes their revised process.

Radio-frequency ID cards (RFID) chips are key to making this work.

The system, built around radio-frequency ID cards (RFID), is similar to toll tags used on highways and bridges. Top-level frequent fliers get an ID card that is flashed at a kiosk in the ticketing area. In seconds, the system finds the reservation for that day, assigns a seat based on personal preferences if one wasn’t pre-selected and checks the passenger in. When everything is good to go, a beacon illuminates.

To check luggage, the passenger goes to a baggage drop point, flashes the frequent-flier card in front of a reader and drops luggage on a baggage belt. The bag is weighed, and lasers measure its dimensions to make sure it complies with limits.

Top-level frequent fliers have heavy-duty RFID tags called “Q Bag Tags” for their bags that replace paper luggage tags. The technology reads the bag’s “identity” as it moves from luggage belts to carts to airport tarmacs. This ensures luggage gets loaded on the same flight as its owner. Other travelers get a paper tag for their bag with an imbedded RFID chip.

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I am getting ready to teach my service operations class next term and that has had me plowing through articles on retail operations and there have been a number of them recently. Let’s start with an apparent problem. Many stores are supposedly seeing more competition from Web-based retailers. This is apparently very true for retailers like Best Buy who live and die with branded goods that are easy to research on line (Best Buy Sales at Risk as Surgical Shoppers Lose Impulse: Retail, Businessweek, Oct 17). That has put a premium on good customer service that converts traffic into sales and possibly gets shoppers to buy more.

“Most retailers are geared for people to come buy,” said Maddocks, a former chief marketing officer at Nike Inc.’s Converse. “Retail has to start gearing itself to sell, to get more out of every person that walks through the door.”

[Bill] Martin [chief executive officer of ShopperTrak] has been analyzing shopping patterns for the past 15 years. Typically traffic and sales growth rise or fall in tandem. Last year he spotted something new. Even as retail sales grew 3.5 percent, according to the NRF, traffic declined 0.5 percent, he said.

When the trend continued this year Martin didn’t know how to explain to clients what was happening, so he asked his researchers to dig for answers. They discovered Americans were turning into what he calls “surgical shoppers.”

Men were the original mission shoppers, and they adopted e- commerce first because it saved time. Faster Web connections and a better shopping experience drew in more women. This has accelerated change in shopping behavior because women outspend men and retailers have long focused their efforts on them.

“Women now go into a store, hoping to go right to what they need like a man would,” said Delia Passi, CEO of Hollywood, Florida-based Medelia Inc., which advises companies such as Home Depot Inc. on how to appeal to female shoppers. “The science of retail shopping has changed, and unfortunately the retailer hasn’t.”


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How should we think of self service? Is it good for society in any sense or is it stealthy way to increase costs for customers? An article in today’s New York Times argues for the second point (Our Unpaid, Extra Shadow Work, Oct 30). The opening paragraph sets the tone:

THE other night at the supermarket I saw a partner at a downtown law firm working as a grocery checker, scanning bar codes. I’m sure she earns at least $300,000 per year. Even so, she was scanning and bagging her purchases in the self-service checkout line. For those with small orders, this might save time spent waiting in slower lines. Nonetheless, she was performing the unskilled, entry-level jobs of supermarket checker and bagger free of charge.

In the eyes of the article’s author, the lawyer has been co-opted into a dubious labor deal.

This is “shadow work,” a term coined 30 years ago by the Austrian philosopher and social critic Ivan Illich, in his 1981 book of that title. For Dr. Illich, shadow work was all the unpaid labor — including, for example, housework — done in a wage-based economy. …

To do the work requires extra jobs, like commuting. The commuter often has to own, insure, maintain and fuel a car — and drive it — just to get to work and back. These unpaid activities ancillary to earning one’s wages are examples of shadow work. …

The conventional wisdom is that America has become a “service economy,” but actually, in many sectors, “service” is disappearing. There was a time when a gas station attendant would routinely fill your tank and even check your oil and clean your windshield and rear window without charge, then settle your bill. Today, all those jobs have been transferred to the customer: we pump our own gas, squeegee our own windshield, and pay our own bill by swiping a credit card. Where customers once received service from the service station, they now provide “self-service” — a synonym for “no service.” Technology enables this sleight of hand, which lets gas stations cut their payrolls, having co-opted their patrons into doing these jobs without pay.

Examples abound, helping drive unemployment rates. Airports now have self-service check-in kiosks that allow travelers to perform the jobs of ticket agents. Travel agents once unearthed, perused and compared fares, deals and hotel rates. Shadow-working travelers now do all of this themselves on their computer screens. Medical patients are now better informed than ever — as a result of hours of online shadow work.

If you have read this blog for a while, you may already be able to guess that I may not completely agree with the above analysis. Indeed, I generally prefer self-service options. That, of course, is my preference. However, I have to think that self-service makes many people’s lives better off whether or not one wants to worry about shadow work.

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I have previously stated that I love self-service checkouts. It may just be that I hate making eye contact (ask anyone who has had to sit through me teaching). I consequently worry every time there is a story suggesting that supermarket chains are eliminating them. Gady had a post on this trend this summer and now the Associated Press is piling on with an article that was picked up by several newspapers (Supermarkets start bagging self-serve checkouts, Sep 26). Here is what the AP says:

Big Y Foods, which has 61 locations in Connecticut and Massachusetts, recently became one of the latest to announce it was phasing out the self-serve lanes. Some other regional chains and major players, including some Albertsons locations, have also reduced their unstaffed lanes and added more clerks to traditional lanes.

Market studies cited by the Arlington, Va.-based Food Marketing Institute found only 16 percent of supermarket transactions in 2010 were done at self-checkout lanes in stores that provided the option. That’s down from a high of 22 percent three years ago.

Overall, people reported being much more satisfied with their supermarket experience when they used traditional cashier-staffed lanes. …

An internal study by Big Y found delays in its self-service lines caused by customer confusion over coupons, payments and other problems; intentional and accidental theft, including misidentifying produce and baked goods as less-expensive varieties; and other problems that helped guide its decision to bag the self-serve lanes.

So one interpretation of this is that the systems are too hard to use and thus unappealing to the average shopper. The counter argument to that is in the United Kingdom. Tesco, the heavyweight champion among British supermarkets, racks up 10 million transactions per week on its self-service tills, fully one third of all its transactions (Tesco Deploys NCR Self-checkouts in Central, Eastern Europe, Sep 16, Progressive Grocer). Perhaps the Brits are more willing to adopt new technology or maybe Tesco aggressively understaffs it regular registers so that customers have no choice but to use the self-service option. In any event, it should be possible to have a decent level of adoption in the US.

The question then is what’s in it for the customer? (more…)

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So how far can we push self service? That’s an interesting process design question. There are clearly instances in which (at least some) customers prefer to do the work for themselves as opposed to waiting for a staff member to serve them. But just how far that be taken?

A California start up is now trying to see if it can move self service into full-service restaurants. At many restaurants, customers already participate in the service process by, say, picking up their food at the counter or clearing their table when they are done. E La Carte, however, is targeting restaurants which otherwise have “proper” sit-down service. They provide a tablet that resides on the table and allows customers to peruse the menu or order more drinks at their leisure. Here is how it is described in Slate (This Waiter Doesn’t Need a Tip, Apr 22):

It works like this. The company manufactures tablet computers with full-day battery lives and a credit-card reader attached. The interface is easy enough for a grade-schooler to use. You select what you want to eat and add items to a cart. Depending on the restaurant’s preferences, the console could show you nutritional information, ingredients lists, and photographs. You can make special requests, like “dressing on the side” or “quintuple bacon.” When you’re done, the order zings over to the kitchen, and the Presto tells you how long it will take for your items to come out. Want a margarita in the meantime? Just add it on the console, and wait for the waiter to bring it. Bored with your companions? Play games on the machine. When you’re through with your meal, you pay on the console, splitting the bill item by item if you wish and paying however you want. And you can have your receipt emailed to you.

According to CNNMoney (Your new waiter is a tablet, May 16), the system has been installed in a number of Bay Area restaurants and has been well received. The company claims that it has boosted sales 10% to 12%, largely by enabling impulse purchases (another round of drinks is an excuse to play with the toy).

The question is whether in the long run this is an attractive process redesign. (more…)

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