Archive for May, 2013

Something good.

Saturday, May 18th, 2013

Everybody who knows me has heard me whine many times about how everything sucks. Progress actually goes backwards and despite our richness and modernity and technological prowess, things always seem to fall terribly short of where it’s obvious they could be.

But every once in a while somebody does something so impressive that I can’t help but go on and on about it and tell anybody who will listen.
The last time I remember being impressed about something was my car radio that for $100 played every kind of audio and video media current at the time I bought it. I was just so impressed that for $100 I could put any kind of video or audio format data on a DVD, sd card, or usb device and it would play through my silly $100 car radio.

Well, over the past few months I’ve seen a series of small shifts at a retailer that really put it up there with google on the almost-not-possible scale. And it’s damn impressive.
That retailer is home depot.
I don’t know if they’ve rolled out all these changes to any other stores or if they’re using my local home depot as a test bed but what they do compared to everybody else is nothing short of amazing.

To start, a number of months ago, maybe a year or two now, I lose track of time, they changed the hardware on their self service checkout aisles to accept coins via a coin slot and paper bills so you could pay your entire bill with pennies if you wanted. I particularly liked this feature, as I was able to make use of all my collected pocket change without incurring a 10% fee like you would at coinstar.
At the same time, I also noticed that credit card transactions would complete in maybe 8-10 seconds after I put my credit card in the machine. It would churn rather quickly and spit me out my receipt. I was impressed in that they were making a lot of progress compared to what they used to do.
The checkout system had a scale and would measure the rough weight of what you scanned with the item’s recorded weight. Which means they kept track of every barcoded item and its weight, and they could measure and compare as quickly as I could scan my items. Good job. Neato.

But now, they’ve really outdone themselves. And as far as I know, everybody else, by far.
A month or two ago, they again replaced their self checkout hardware. These machines did one better. Instead of having a coin slot, it’s got a bowl. Yes, you can actually dump a pile of change in this thing and it will sift through it all and rack up the credit. I have noticed you can overwhelm it, but if you feed it at not too fast a pace, it will correctly tally up all your coins, including pennies, and you won’t have to feed the machine one coin at a time. First I thought this was an amazing step forward, but it gets better.
The credit card transaction processing speed, is unlike anything you will see anywhere. You put your credit card in, and before you have finished putting your credit card back in your wallet, your receipt is already printing. Quite literally, less than TWO SECONDS, from reading card, to getting a receipt.
I didn’t even know the credit card companies were capable of that on their end. Just amazing.
But we’re not done, there’s one more.
They may have had this for a while, but I don’t go out to the garden section too often, so I wouldn’t have noticed.
The checkout lines tend to grow quickly in the garden area because there’s only 1 or 2 checkout lanes. Maybe this was a design mistake, more likely it was not, as there’s no point in manning 5 lanes outside because most of the time it’s probably dead out there. But on a nice Saturday, it gets busy quickly.
So they solved the long line problem a different way: They changed the process.

I have long bitched about supermarkets that have 15 aisles and 15 queues rather than 1 queue, and I assume the reason they do it that way is because 1 queue would take up a lot of valuable real estate, or possibly they don’t care, I don’t know. But from an efficiency point of view, 15 queues is dumb.
But in home depot’s case, they only have 2 aisles and therefore 2 queues, so at max load, they back up quickly.
So here’s what they did: They got one or two extra people with portable scanners to work their way up the line, and ring up all the stuff in the cart of the next person waiting on line. They give you a little credit card sized barcoded card that ties your order to you. When you arrive at the till, you hand over your card, they scan it, and vwoom, your entire order is instantly on their till. Even better, the guy who gives you the card from the scanner, can tell you your total so you’re prepared for it. Then he goes to the next guy waiting on line.
What this does is split the work of checking out one person across two people who can work in parallel. The till person only accepts money and spends exactly 0 time sifting through the stuff in your cart you want to buy.

What’s amazing about all this, is that it’s home depot.
Somebody over there deserves a lot of credit for trying to fix the customer service problem, and as a result has achieved real world process applications that blow away anything I’ve ever seen before.
Hopefully they will set the bar for everybody else.

There are even a few more things. I talked to a guy at home depot who told me they were instructed to break the rules to get what the customer wants.
In my case I needed a length of wire, and he’s not supposed to rip open a new otherwise-sellable roll to cut a length for somebody, but that’s what the customer wanted, and they had run out of their wire on the available roll, so he dug it out opened it up and cut me the length I asked for.

Somebody over there is really trying hard, and I hope they get sufficiently rewarded, because it’s rare that I’m impressed by anything, and I am damn impressed by home depot. They are really making progress in the way the word progress was originally intended.