7 April 2011

The Shopping Cart Quandary

Just down the street from my office is a very convenient Sam's Club that I frequent on a regular basis to pick up those necessary items you just can't get anywhere else. The most memorable trip I've ever taken there involved leaving with only two items: flowers for my wife (I buy her flowers regularly for no particular reason other than I can) and a case of Octoberfest. Watching the facial expressions of my fellow shoppers was hilarious and I carried out those two items in my arms.

On a more recent trip to Sam's I found myself in search of another odd item, a microwave oven. The one I had purchased from another retailer less than two years prior had already died and I had no desire to repeat that poor purchase again. I found a microwave at Sam's that would fit on my counter and underneath the very low overhead cabinets in my kitchen, put the box in my cart and headed to the front of the store to pay and leave.

It was a late night at work for me that evening, having been there until nearly 8pm finishing up a project. When I entered the store, there were many registers open and many had no line. There were very few customers in the store with me, but it seems as if my sense of timing is, as always, impeccable. When I made it to the front of the store, there were now only two open registers and about 10 people in each line. I was annoyed, but didn't have much choice in the matter as leaving and going to another store would only take more time than waiting in the line.

While I stood there bored, I remembered a blog post I had recently written about why the checkout line always seems to be so slow. About the time I remembered that post, along comes a store employee with a gadget that is known to retailers everywhere, but this time it was used in a way I did not expect: as a line-buster.

You may not recognize the term line-buster, but I almost guarantee you've seen one. Very busy fast food restaurants have been known to place an employee with a tablet PC or handheld device that connects wirelessly to the store point of sale to help place customer orders without the need for yelling into the microphone at the drive-thru. The concept in Sam's is similar; the employee scanned my membership card and then scanned the barcodes on the items in my cart. When I made it to the cashier, they swiped my membership card, the contents of my cart was priced, I paid for the order and left.

While this was a vast improvement to having a single person both scanning items and accepting payment, I can't help but wonder if a more efficient process would have been to have the employee with the barcode scanner open up another register and simply process customer's the 'old fashioned' way. Was the barcode scanner really faster in this situation? What feasibility studies were done to prove out this method? What metrics were produced to show that this method really was superior? If it is so much better, why isn't this the standard method for stores to use? Why not just have a bunch of people with handheld scanners and only a few people taking payment?

What options did the company think about, maybe even form an exploratory committee to review and then toss out instead of this option? Did an alternative come up for using RFID tags? Was a big scale to weigh the cart and then price by the pound/kilo seem just too crazy? What about having one of the industrial barcode scanners that UPS uses in their package sorting facilities that can scan all sides of a box at once?

I haven't (yet) come up with a better solution than the people at Sam's Club and I doubt I ever will. They're smart people and get paid well to think about these kinds of things. Still, it was an amusing way to pass an otherwise mind-numbingly long wait when all I really wanted to do was get out of there and get home.

What kind of tough, non-work problem have you tried to solve recently? Did you make it better or just hurt your brain in the process? Let us know in the comments.


  1. I worked for Wal-Mart (which owns Sam's Club) as a cashier back in 1998 and received training on a similar "line busting" system back then. In my store I do not ever recall seeing it used. Back then, the idea was that if the lines started backing up, someone would grab the Telexon scanner/printer combo and go start scanning items of people in line. Once everything was scanned, you push a button and a little slip printed out with a barcode on it (which would be linked to their item list in the POS system). This would be given to the customer, who would in turn give it to the cashier. The cashier would scan that and their register would load up the items and calculate the total balance due.

    To address your question as to why they don't just open another register there are two key factors. One is training. It's a lot easier to train someone to use the line busting scanner than it is to give someone full training as a cashier. Lots of people in the store would get trained on the line buster and they could swoop in, bust the lines, then scatter back to their "regular" job fairly quickly. Training someone as a full cashier is a lot more involved and actually requires recurrent training to keep up with changes to payment policies, accepted payment types, dealing with "odd" forms of payment like food stamps and traveler's checks, loss prevention detection, how to reload the receipt paper, and a whole assortment of stuff that most people don't think about. Remember, a cashier has to be able to handle whatever the next customer in line might throw at them (need to have an order split, partial payment with food stamps and split the rest between $10 cash, a $20 check, and the remainder on two different debit cards; and by the way, here's my layaway slip, what's my current balance due [granted they don't have layaway anymore, but many do have an assortment of other crazy stuff come up that you wouldn't expect]). Personally, I'd rather they didn't open up more lines with people who aren't fully trained as it will simply slow the lines down even more.

    To be continued...

  2. ...continued from above.

    Second is accountability. At Wal-Mart (I suspect it's the same at Sam's), when a cashier comes on duty they would be assigned a register and had an opening procedure where they would "count down" the register. At our store the register was supposed to have $60 in it when we started. It takes a little while to count all that change and verify the starting amount. If there is any over/under, you would need to get a customer service manager who would re-count the register and sign the count sheet if there was a problem. Once a cashier took on a register, only that cashier is allowed to use the register during their shift. If they go to lunch, that register is closed until they come back, or until a customer service manager "closes out" their cash drawer for them and re-assigns it to someone else. When the cashier's shift is over, they "count down" the register again to leave it with $60 for the next cashier. Everything else got placed in a bag and dropped at the cash office behind the customer service desk. The cash office would then go through each bag and reconcile it with the computer's sales record for the register to account for all of the cash, credit/debit slips, checks, etc.

    That whole process is for the protection of both the store and the cashier to prevent theft and track losses. If only one cashier has access to a cash drawer during their shift (aside from the managers, of course), then any losses are very easy to track down. It also protects the cashier from being blamed for losses that they didn't cause since nobody else could get to their drawer. If you have several people jumping on random registers all the time without going through the process, the accountability goes away and it becomes easier for someone using that register to lift cash out of it without being caught.

    To sum up, most people look at it from the customer's point of view and forget that the store also has to look out for itself and its employees, and processes have to be followed to ensure losses are reduced and everything is accounted for.

    Now I mentioned that I never actually saw the line buster used in my store. The main reason was that at the time, Telexon scanners were a fairly rare commodity in the store, but lots of people needed to use them. Department managers were notorious for "borrowing" the Telexon from another department and forgetting to return it. They were pretty rugged, but one or two of them would usually be broken at any given time and they took a while to get fixed or replaced (they're also expensive). The ones that were supposed to be reserved for line busting were usually out on loan to some other department where someone else had an immediate need. The printers were also tempermental or would go missing at times, making the line busting app unworkable (because that printed slip with the barcode needed to come out for it to do any good). Another part of it was attitude of the service managers. There were times when the Telexons were in their cradles with the printers connected, but the managers in our store preferred to hop on a register themselves than call in the line busting crew. I believe management in our store just didn't promote its use and it just got covered in training but was never actually put into practice. Likewise, our store also had four portable cash registers which were supposed to be carted out during really busy times (Black Friday, lead-up to Christmas, etc.) but I never once saw them used, probably for much the same reasons (and probably because nobody really knew if they actually worked or not since they just sat in the back room under their protective covers all the time).

    Anyway, that's probably more than you wanted to know. My experience is from way back in 1998-2001, so I suspect a lot has changed since then, but the general thinking is probably still there.

  3. Justin, I follow you. My day job involves managing requirements for an entire, custom point of sale system with 2800 locations. I'm there with you on the cash issue; we do the same thing. The one advantage my organization has is that our locations are MUCH smaller than a Wal-mart or a Sam's. You're right, cash management is a bear of a problem and one I should probably put on my list of things to blog about!

    Thanks for your insight on the scanners though. Did you ever hear of anyone come up with a different alternative for how to solve the line busting problem?

  4. Hi Ted, I haven't heard of other line busters that worked, unfortunately, as I know it'd good to have options. Linking the scanned items to the membership card is a good idea though since it eliminates the need to print the tracking barcode.

    One thing they tried when I was there was to allow the cashier to put an order on hold and begin scanning for the next customer, then go back to the first order to close it out when ready. This came up when customers would need ID for checks and would have to run out to their car to get their driver license, holding up the line for several minutes in some cases (it seemed like an eternity). Unfortunately that usually led to items getting mixed up between the orders, or the cashier not realizing who's order they were on so customer 1 would end up paying for customer 2, and so on. It got messy so they stopped doing it (at the time). The alternatives were to void and re-scan the original order so the line could move (which usually required authorization from a customer service manager, and invariably the original customer would be back three seconds after their order was voided). Not fun.

    Outside of that, I suppose if the store transferred some personnel positions from floor department positions to cashiers it could help. Officially those employees would be cashiers, be trained as cashiers, and have to stay current on their recurrent training, attend cashier meetings, etc. However, when they start their shift they get assigned a register, count it out, and all that jazz just like a cashier, but then go work in whatever "other" department they're "on loan" to for stocking, customer assistance, or whatever. They could then be recalled to the registers as needed to open "another register" to bust the lines, then close and go back to doing their other job. At the end of the shift they would need to close out the register just like all the other cashiers. It would essentially be an insurance policy against long lines, but would create additional work for the service managers, cash office personnel, human resources (training), and put pressure on the department managers because they'd have less man-hours available since some of their people would be yanked out from under them periodically. The best solution would be to simply hire more cashiers, perhaps part-time, but then you might end up with having a bunch of them standing around when it isn't busy, so there's certainly a balance to be found somewhere.

  5. There's also a psychological aspect to it - even in a line with ten other people, having someone scan your merchandise for final processing lets you feel like you're making progress. And you are making progress, because you're moving some activities off the critical path.

  6. In places like Starbucks, there's also a commitment factor. If you go in and wait for a while but it seems like it's going to take too long, you can just leave. If someone is coming down the line taking orders before you make it to the register there is a much stronger chance you will stay and wait rather than bail out.