Friday, April 18, 2008

Eat your words. Digitally, that is.

How far should self-service electronic checkout go? Most people I talk to complain about self check registers at the supermarket. I’m often in agreement. My first suggestion: give these machines a better voice! IBM, NCR, other self checkout manufacturers, why not have George Clooney asking me how many mangoes are in the bag? Another suggestion: often, when the conveyor belt fills up slightly the faceless voice instructs you to stop scanning items and fill your bags. In these cases, give us more than two seconds to actually get it done before asking "If you are done scanning items, please pay!" The machine may be super-human, but it takes me a little while to get my items bagged.

Now, I know what you’re saying: Annie, it's a computer voice. You can ignore it. But the technology itself is not at fault here. It's being rushed and herded needlessly that ruins the retail experience, at the command of its manufacturers, probably at the request of their customers. These companies might do well to remember the difference between efficiency for consumers’ convenience and efficiency for their profit, though.

Because I’m a social scientist at heart, I turn my supermarket trips into research opportunities. Every time I’ve observed the self-checkouts, I see at least two flashing help lights out of five open registers, with customers waiting for the floor manager to key in a missed product code. At the same time, I also see workers hovering, often at the end of the conveyor belt, waiting to help bag or get carts. What does this tells us? Supermarket executives have yet to figure out how real and digital workers fit together.

Here’s an example: It’s a quiet Tuesday morning in my local supermarket: just me and the senior citizen crowd (my favorite informal market research group -- understudied and gregarious, what more could you ask for?) There were a lot of supermarket workers standing around. I hate having to continually explain my bag preference (reusable supermarket bags and as few store bags as possible), so I choose the self -service checkout. So what happens? I’ve got two items scanned, haven’t even been pestered by the digital voice yet, and a supermarket worker arrives and begins bagging my groceries in what I have now come to call “Pittsburgh Style” – one item per plastic bag, no matter how small. So much for my reduced carbon footprint.

Most people adapt to and accept self-service kiosks. ATMs are a prime example. The only time I need a bank teller is when I have a transaction that’s too complex for the ATM. And amazingly, bank tellers are often some of the nicest and most helpful service employees in the pantheon of service economy personnel. When I go into the bank, I truly want their help. But most of the time, self-service banking is a minimally involved task. (You put in the card, you get money, you check your balance, or, if you’re lucky, you make a deposit.)

Checking out at the grocery is an entirely different story. As in many retail contexts, people have more complex needs. I am amazed at the array of vegetable and fruit choices displayed on the monitor – even so, this is, indeed, where most people get waylaid on the road to self service self sufficiency. We know what we’re buying – but does the machine categorize it in any way remotely similar to our lexicon of edible greens? Are those JUMBO navel oranges or MEDIUM ones? Are green beans under G for green or B for beans?

A new market survey shows that consumers are so accustomed to banking through ATMs that they’re frustrated when not available. Now, take this survey with a grain of self-serving self-service salt (because the survey’s sponsor was NCS, who makes the systems.) Another research note: keep in mind that the survey was done on-line, which means the sample is already skewed in the direction of technology-capable individuals. None of my informal 70 – 80 year old market research group friends are comfortable with ATMs. Indeed, some of them were quite adept at online banking, but they limited their use of ATMs, citing concerns about safety and ability to follow directions. With a large portion of the American population heading into the AARP demographic, digital technology companies should design self-service interfaces in secure environments that give older people more time, offers better readability, and provides service options with greater clarity.

Having read this, I wonder when (or if) people will come to regard self checkout systems as a supermarket necessity, as ATMs have become to banks. I know we're not there yet. The grocers, it seems, are having a hard time determining when consumers want flesh and blood help as a side dish or a main course.

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Thursday, April 17, 2008

DVDPlay introduces loyalty program

So you've probably realized by now that I'm pretty bullish on Redbox and their competition, who have stumbled upon a new and different way to let people rent movies. While Redbox makes the bulk of the news (and consequently gets most of the coverage over here), competitor DVDPlay has introduced some news-worthy functionality that Evan at StorefrontBacktalk picked up yesterday. Specifically, the kiosk introduces a rent-10-get-one-free loyalty program that simply uses a renter's email address to keep track of the number of movies rented.

Rental movies are an affordable luxury, what with today's high prices keeping more people at home more often than before, so fostering loyalty to a particular mechanism makes a lot of sense. These kiosks face intense competition from Blockbuster and their kin (however lame they may currently appear), Netflix, cable and satellite VOD, video over the Internet from services like Apple's iTV and Amazon's Unbox, and, of course, the bevy of other DVD rental kiosks out there. Encouraging loyal might prove to be a boon for DVDPlay while providing genuine value to customers. And, of course, if they're harvesting user rental histories, it probably won't be long until we see further personalization features like Netflix's suggested rental lists.

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Monday, April 14, 2008

Should Blockbuster buy Redbox?

That's the question that NewTeeVee's Chris Albrecht asks in a recent post at the site's blog. While Blockbuster clearly needs to do something to avoid getting further eviscerated by Netflix and a host of others, their current plan to build a set-top box and allow direct download video rentals might not be the right course to take at this point. After all, as Albrecht notes, "getting into the hardware game will be an expensive endeavor, especially in an increasingly crowded field already packed with big names like Apple, TiVo, Xbox 360, Vudu and soon the Netflix LG box."

Instead of going that route, what about picking up Redbox, whose self-service kiosks are already deployed to over 6,800 sites across the US? He makes a pretty interesting case for the plan:
Going out into the real world to download something may seem like an unnecessary step, but it’s actually more of a transitional one because it combines elements people are already familiar with.

First, people still go to video stores. In adding these kiosks to their real-world locations, Blockbuster would bridge the the familiar experience of browsing the aisles for a movie with the more unfamiliar one of digital delivery.

Second, by using existing set-top services like TiVo, people wouldn’t feel like they have to buy a new device, or worry about buying one that will die quickly (read: HD DVD).

Finally, by leveraging the existing Redbox kiosks in non-video locations like grocery stores, Blockbuster could take advantage of impulse renting. People are already used to the idea of DVDs being sold in supermarkets, this would nudge them a little further and into downloads.
I don't think a lot of marketers realize just how difficult it is to break people of their habits. I also get the feeling that too many of them don't fully understand that when people are out shopping for one thing -- say shampoo or cereal -- they're primed to be on the lookout for other things, even other unrelated things, hence the appeal of Redbox's kiosks in all sorts of different retail stores. This is just my personal opinion, but Blockbuster buying Redbox makes a lot more sense than trying to launch a VOD product or buy Circuit City, which was their new (yet definitely not improved) plan as of this morning.

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Monday, April 07, 2008

Touch screen voting is stupidly expensive

It's not often that I would call The Inquirer -- the tech industry's closest thing to a tabloid newspaper -- a source of insightful and well-balanced opinion, but their article today about the costs of touchscreen voting just hit too close to my own heart to ignore. Citing a study (pdf) conducted by the Maryland voting integrity group Save Our Votes, they note that:
  • The voting machines themselves cost about $3,000 apiece.
  • Maryland's counties took out $67 million in loans to buy those machines and will be paying them through 2014, despite the fact the kiosks will be out of use by 2010.
  • By the end of this election year Maryland will have spent over $97.5 million on the voting machines it's planning to scrap.
  • Beyond the cost of the machines, the state will have paid Diebold at least $44 million for operating, maintaining and storing the actual machines as well as programming, testing, and transportation services to and from precincts, as well as training poll workers and performing "voter outreach" to promote their use among the electorate.
In all, "SaveOur Votes analysed the cost of touch screen electronic voting machines in those counties. In most of the counties their average costs per voter increased 179 per cent. At least one county saw its costs per voter increase 866 per cent, from a total cost of about $22,000 in 2001 to $266,000 in 2007."

Now I know that governments have a habit of making bad decisions and paying too much for them, but an 866% increase for worse performance is pretty stunning even for them. Throw in the fact that every known e-voting platform has (or can be) hacked, and I'd say this is perhaps the most ill-fated electronic governance project ever. Period.

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