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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Anonymous said...

I totally agree with you! Thanks for putting it out there!

Catherine Monroe said...

I work at a big-name supermarket chain, and we frequently joke that the POS system that we have in place for customers to self-scan their purchases does not really mean "point of sale," but rather, "piece of s**t." When customers go to ring in their produce, they are presented with little pictures of items with their PLU's listed underneath of them. What happens when there are five different pictures of "broccoli crowns" with all different PLU's? Well, this is why we've given them their nicknames.

I would say about 70% of customers require help when using the self-checkout, with the other 30% having required so much help in the past that we've prettty much already taught them everything we know.

Thanks for the great article!