Monday, March 31, 2008

Point of Sale, with an emphasis on point

I read an article in RetailWire that took me back to my first job out of college. A very optimistic man hired me as an assistant business manager for a million dollar sports and day camp. I quickly mastered and streamlined almost every feature of the job, except for one thing that caused my customers and myself endless grief: our invoice forms. Neither our paper supplier nor the Harvard MBA above me could create a single, adaptable template for all of our transactions, and on the day I left, I piled my desk with boxes full of the ten different invoice formats that we used.

While every service worker on the front lines has their horror story, customers also have their own version: checkout purgatory. I’m working on some ethnographic research (translate: hanging out and watching at the local grocery) about how workers and customers fair with newly automated supermarket registers. Here’s what I’ve learned so far: anyone who buys non-iceberg lettuce eventually has to hit the Help button. Checkout clerks develop informal systems of either perpetually hovering over or completely ignoring those flummoxed by the self-service lanes. I’m waiting for the day that road rage morphs over into the checkout line – and with the advent of self-checkout, I believe the moment is nigh.

Efficiency is a complicated goal. Stores like it because it increases sales and decreases waste. Consumers like it because they believe it leaves them more time for other pursuits. But technology can’t function efficiently unless both servers and customers are getting what they need. I’m originally from New York, so I’m from a tribe of people who historically rank among the most impatient ever patented. I want my stuff yesterday. But even I would rather have a knowledgeable person waiting on me than one who rushes me into buying things I don’t need. The only thing worse than a New Yorker in a hurry is a New Yorker who has to make a return.

Returns, exchanges, and special orders are often their own brand of nightmare. I alternate between pity for the poor retail manager who has to sort these out and rage at the stupidity of systems that funnel problems through the same line as people with a single pair of socks. Stores that carry a wide range of merchandise seem to struggle with this much more than, say, your friendly neighborhood mega bookstore that smartly has its Help kiosk in the dead center of the store, visible from the front door, and can link to their online ordering in seconds.

Some analysts would have you believe that reducing the need for smart staff is a laudable goal –- especially since worker efficiency is and always will be a complicated variable. I’m impressed that companies might trust me enough to return my own incorrectly sized shoes to the rack with a PIN device set up to monitor inventory. But I’m still going to wait for the sales associate who knows where the right size shoes might be or what alternatives the store might have or whether they even look good on me. Bottom line: digital technology and a good retail sales force should also be synchronized rather than pitted against each other. No matter how customer-centric a POS system is, the service person who knows your needs will always be more than peripheral.

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Thursday, March 20, 2008

Reactrix to add transaction capabilities

As cool as a Reactrix setup looks while walking through a mall concourse or (increasingly) in movie theaters, I have to wonder whether their latest announcement -- namely, that they'd be adding the ability to conduct sales transactions via applications running on their network -- really made any sense. According to MediaPost,

Once a user is engaged with the experience, opportunities will naturally arise to offer promotions and actual sales of products from the brand advertiser, [CEO Mike Ribero] adds.

Ribero said commercial transactions could be handled one of two ways: through a credit-card swipe (or a wallet sensor for cards with Blink-style capability) or with new technology that ties mobile devices to credit cards, in which the consumer enters a confirmation code from the display.

It's one thing to say that people who interact with your virtual Honda salesroom (or whatever) will be able to remember the brand later. However, like those virtual shop windows that have been getting some buzz lately, this medium definitely seems more of an experiential experiment to me, and certainly not part of any "normal" purchase process that I'd be familiar with. That means Reactrix will have to convince a whole bunch of people that using their system is just another acceptable way of completing a transaction. They could be banking on the fact that younger generations are already (slowly!) getting used to the idea of using contactless systems and even their mobile phones as payment devices, and counting on this generation to look for more unique and gratifying ways to actually complete a purchase. For most people though, I don't see the demand or the advantage.

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Friday, March 14, 2008

Japanese restaurant menus go high-tech

The Japanese have invented some pretty remarkable gadgets in the last couple of decades, but this one is just plain over-the-top. As reported at The Raw Feed, "Japan's TEC has created a restaurant table with a built-in 3-D LCD screen. The table, called the Tobidasu Menu, lets you browse food choices. The piece de resistance is that you can select each item on the touch-screen table for full-size, 3-D view. The table shows what your food will look like sitting in front of you."

According to one of the comments on that post, the Japanese are used to ordering food by appearance, and restaurants (even classy ones) frequently have pictures or even models of the food as well as a text description. Still, I have to believe that this kind of device is designed to be a novelty more than an actual ordering accessory, but I could be wrong.

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Thursday, March 13, 2008

Largest Hardee's franchisee tests self-service kiosks

According to QSR Magazine, Boddie-Noell Enterprises, the largest Hardee's franchise operator in the US, has begun testing self-service kiosks from provider EMN8 in three pilot locations. The pilot is intended to, "test the level of guest adoption of the technology, improvement in speed of customer service, and lift in average check the franchisee can achieve."

Hardees and others continue to test the devices for a number of purported reasons, including lifting the average ticket size (by using the kiosk to recognize and push up-sell and cross-sell opportunities), reduce average wait times during peak periods, and generally improve customer satisfaction. It's interesting, then, that none of the big guys have ever moved beyond the pilot phase, despite years of new initiatives. Maybe the cost of the implementation is too high. Maybe it requires too much ongoing maintenance. Or maybe it's too hard to educate the typical QSR patron about a new way of conducting a familiar transaction. But whatever the problem(s), it seems to be big enough to keep ordering kiosks from really taking off.

That having been said, these QSR chains keep trying new technologies and business partners, so it's clear that some of them really do want to see a viable ordering kiosk solution become available. Given the successes the airline industry have had with self-service, QSR does seem like the kind of environment that could really benefit from it. When and where that "eureka!" moment will finally happen, though, is still anyone's guess.

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