Analyst Corner

When the System Takes Over, Part Deux

Categories: Uncategorized

Just before NRF, Sean told us about a situation where the best laid plans of a national retailer’s management and IT department caused havoc for a very well intentioned customer with a very large transaction. This week, I’d like to tell you about another situation involving a national retailer, a very well intentioned customer, but with a somewhat smaller transaction. That customer was me.

I had been looking at flat-screen TV prices for a couple of months, and I was finally ready to pull the trigger. The model I had my eye on was available at a local retailer with a buy-online pickup-in store. I made the purchase online, paid for it with my store-branded card, and happily printed out the receipt for pickup the following day. The ordering process went without a hitch.

The next day I went to the retailer and used the self-service kiosk they have just outside their merchandise pickup department. I scanned the barcode and watched as the wall-mounted display showed my name with a digital counter that marked off the seconds until I was waited on. Less than four minutes later, I was loading my new TV into my car for the ride home.

Setup went without any problems, and the surprise on my family’s faces when they saw the new purchase (we buy a TV about every 10 years) was great reward.

The problem started 3 days later, and it had nothing to do with the TV. I received an automated phone call from the retailer informing me that my item was ready for pickup. No one in the family had ordered anything else from this retailer, so I chalked it up to a system hiccup and I immediately forgot about it.

That is until a week later when I received another automated phone call from the retailer, this one seemingly more insistent that I pick up my item or it would be cancelled. The message helpfully provided a toll-free number to contact the retailer if I had any questions, so I called, and made the correct menu selections, and waited. And waited. And waited. And got cut off. And I called again, and waited…

Fearing that if I didn’t do anything I’d receive a half-dozen automated calls a day and get charged for more TV sets than there are rooms in my home, I decided to visit the retailer and talk with them face-to-face. Bad move. This time, I again scanned the barcode on my receipt in the handy self-service kiosk, and again watched as my name was displayed prominently on the wall-mounted display. This time, however, the timer counted up to 39 seconds, and then my status was changed to “Completed.” I waited another five minutes, and then about the time I was going to scan the barcode again, a store employee (picture Barney Fife in Dickies) blasted through a set of double doors with another customer’s order and raced past me into the parking lot. Upon his hurried return, he called back to me that he would “…just be a minute!” as he disappeared through the double doors. Another five minutes, and he emerged from his inner sanctum, this time requesting my paperwork and again disappearing before I could explain why I was there.

A few minutes later he re-emerged, this time telling me that my TV wouldn’t be in until tomorrow (?!?) and that I should come back then. I was finally able to slow him down enough to explain that I had already picked up my TV, that I wanted to inform them of that fact, and to please ensure that I get no more automated phone calls telling me that my TV was ready for pickup. At this point, the expression on the poor man’s face was priceless, but he led me back into his inner sanctum, and as I watched, made the necessary entry on an order screen indicating that I had picked up the TV.

The mind boggles as to what would have happened had I been unscrupulous and simply obeyed the store employee’s instructions, come back the next day, picked up another TV and taken it home. Would I have received another automated call, starting the whole cycle all over again? How long would the retailer have allowed the cycle to continue? Would my only recourse be to begin selling 40″ TV’s on eBay?

Yes, there is some humor here, but there is also something very sad. The fact is that the problem was brought to the attention of the retailer by the customer. This might be fine for a clean-up on aisle nine, but not for problems with the core supply chain systems of a national retailer. The dependence upon the systems reminds me of some research done decades ago where students were given a series of math quizzes to complete. To help them, the students were each provided a calculator that, unbeknownst to them, had been modified to provide incorrect answers to the input operation. Many students relied solely upon the faulty calculators, even when the questions on the quizzes were easily done in their heads.

Retailers should not rely solely upon the output of their systems; there needs to be a human “sanity check” applied. Otherwise, they end up believing their own press. And as if to put a final explanation point on this, as I headed out the door after finally resolving the issue (no, I haven’t had any more automated phone calls from this retailer since), the retailer has posted on the wall their “Merchandise Pickup Commitment.” For “Yesterday” it claimed that 100% of their customers were serviced within 5 minutes. For “Last Week”, it showed 98%.

Of course…