Sunday, February 21, 2010

Adventures in Retail, Cont'd: Checking Out

The last time we discussed my retail work, we looked at the returns desk. Today I thought we could take a look at the actual checkout lanes. One of the performance goals given to the cashiers at my store is to be fast. There are other goals, but fast is the only one that is objectively measured. The system actually times how long it takes from the moment the first item is scanned to the moment the receipt is printed. The time is fed into an algorithm along with other factors including how many items were involved, the payment method, and, presumably, shoe size, I guess. All I see at the end is whether I succeeded or failed to process the transaction fast enough. I get to see this indicator after every transaction alongside a number indicating my percentage of successes. The system doesn't actually ask for perfection (which is fortunate, since there are a surprising number of ways for the customer to trip you up), but I didn't get as far as I did in school by being happy with B's. That little percentage sign is a pretty motivating number for me.

It's also, like most metrics, not quite properly aligned. As I've mentioned before, such a misalignment can cause some interesting problems. Perhaps the biggest difference between what this metric actually measures and what it is intended to improve emerges from the timing mechanism. The system does not start timing the customer experience until the first item is scanned and it stops after the payment is entered. This leaves room for a whole lot of sins on either end. Whenever possible, we try to take out all the clothing hangers before scanning the first item, so that time won't count against us. At the other end, I'll bag the trickiest things while the customer enters payment information. These before/after actions are probably in overall service to the goal of a fast checkout experience, but others are not.

It is, for example, in my best interest as cashier, to wait until the customer has placed a few items on the counter before I start scanning. This way I know my process won't be slowed much if the customer gets distracted (last minute gum decisions often lead to a failed time mark without this buffer). However, it's in the customer's best interest (and the overall, unmeasured, speed), if I start immediately. If a customer is paying in cash, it's in my best interests to anticipate what they'll be handing me since the timer stops as soon as the drawer opens. If I'm wrong, though, I have to recalculate change in my head and the overall time (but not the recorded time) goes up more than if I had just waited to see what they would find at the bottom of their purse.

These tricks, despite being partly counter-productive to the stated purpose, don't bother the managers. See, they're graded on how well their cashiers meet the time requirements, so they're the ones who taught me most of these tricks.

That's not to say it's a bad system. Those time losses are relatively minor most of the time. My real frustration with the algorithm is that it has no way to account for the impact of the customers. I get failure marks in places where I should be getting medals for dealing with some of these people. I have no specific stories, or rather I have too many, so I am instead presenting the information as a list of recommendations for how YOU can avoid being one of these customers.
  1. Take your stuff out of the cart when you get to the lane. The next person does not have cooties.
  2. If you're carrying a basket, please empty it for me. Placing the full basket on the conveyor doesn't do either of us any favors.
  3. Use the divider bars provided. That gap you're leaving will just get eaten by the conveyor belt. I'll never see it. The bar does not have this problem.
  4. On a related note, if two of you arrive together, using the same cart and unloading at the same time, please don't expect me to assume you're paying separately, let alone guess where your stuff ends and hers begins. Seriously, just use the bar.
  5. If you have your own bags, please give them to me first. It's much easier and much faster than asking me to repack everything I've already put away.
  6. Finally, get your money out before I finish packing the bags. Even if you don't know the exact amount necessary, at least have the wallet ready. The bigger your purse is, the sooner you need to start looking. This goes double for checks. You already know the name of the store you're paying, so go ahead and get started.
Like I said earlier, it's been an entertaining job.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Book Recommendation: Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde

I love to read. I talk about video games a lot, but books have always come first. That being said, I sometimes find it difficult to make recommendations for others. I do okay estimating their tastes and interests. Where I suspect I stumble most often is guessing how much work people are willing to do for their reading pleasure. Actually to be more accurate (and somewhat less humble), where I really stumble, is estimating how much effort some books ask of others. And some books really do ask a lot.

Harry Potter, for instance, is a ridiculously easy read. That is not to say it's simplistic, but rather it feels effortless. Dune, on the other hand, requires a bit of patience and diligence. It's the difference between strapping yourself into a roller coaster or running a marathon. Both lead to the release of endorphins, but in one you're carried along while in the other you've got to do the work yourself.

Shades of Grey, as you might have guessed, is one of the latter books. It is a bit of a departure from Fforde's other works. I strongly recommend them, too, but for different reasons. His Thursday Next series is a brilliant, hilarious, highly enjoyable, and somewhat bizarre combination of Robert Ludlum, Douglas Adams, and Charlotte Bronte (start with "The Eyre Affair"). His Nursery Crime series is a brilliant, hilarious, highly enjoyable and somewhat bizarre combination of Dashiell Hammet, Douglas Adams, and Mother Goose (start with "The Big Over Easy").

Shades of Grey is something else entirely. For instance, most of the Douglas Adams is gone. That's not to say it's not funny, but humor is less of a focus. It's a much darker story (ironic, given the central role of color). It's also even more difficult to describe. Among his many talents, perhaps Fforde's most welcome is his ability to deliver something utterly new. This is one of those things. If I were to try to place it in a genre, I might paint it as a post-apocalyptic, Victorian, coming-of-age, social commentary, and color wheel lesson. I might refer to William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, Ursula K. Le Guin, or George Orwell (with just a hint of Douglas Adams). None of that would quite work though. Really, to describe it best, I'd have to say it's like a dark Jasper Fforde.

The book is about a vaguely Victorian society based entirely on the limited ability of its members to perceive color. That's all I'm going to describe of the plot or the world because (and here is where my warning about work finally returns) much of the enjoyment in this book comes from piecing together what the heck this world is about. It really is a completely new place, one that Fforde has assembled meticulously and thoroughly, a world he reveals bit by bit through a protagonist who is already frustratingly familiar with it. Harry Potter discovers his new world (and has it explained to him) alongside the reader, but Edward Russet offers no such guided tour (although he tries sometimes). That is where the work comes in, and the patience. The important parts come together in a tremendously satisfying manner, but it will take time and effort to get them there. Some of the unimportant parts do, too, but, just as in the world outside books, much is left unexplained.

So, given that I won't explain what it is about or where it is set or how the world works, how do you, dear reader, know if you will enjoy it or not? Perhaps I can offer a few rules-of-thumb to help you decide.

Read it if:
1. You already know you like Jasper Fforde books
2. You love built-world books like Dune, The Left Hand of Darkness, or Neuromancer
3. You are intrigued by the idea of a world where the social order is built entirely upon what hues people see and how much.

I love it. It's one of the best books I've read in a long time. Take that for what it's worth to you.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Poor Timing

As some of you know, I am currently job hunting. As this doesn't pay very well, I have taken a side job with a local retail store. I wasn't expecting to like it, but it has proven surprisingly entertaining. I thought I'd share.

First, a little context: I fill two basic roles, cashier and guest service. I was, briefly, stationed in the electronics department, but that was a temporary thing during the peak of the holiday insanity, and now I'm back to my regular postings. I deal solely with the exchange of goods for money (or some representation thereof). Sometimes I'm the one with the goods and sometimes I'm the one with the money.

I was expecting angry and frustrated customers, especially those bringing in returns, but while we get them, they are by far the exception. The majority of customers are friendly and pleasantly surprised by the speed and quality of service. I appreciate this. My boss appreciates this (one reason I survived the culling at the end of the holiday season). You probably don't, because pleasant, satisfied customers do not usually make for very entertaining stories. Sorry about that. So I'm going to share some of the other experiences. I just wanted you to understand that this is not typical.

So... on to the entertaining customers... Each is probably worth an entry of their own. For now, we'll start with deadlines:

My store has a 90 day return policy. This seems more than fair to me. Three months is a long time to decide whether you want to continue with your purchase. If it's enough time for me to decide whether to keep a girlfriend, it's more than enough time for you to figure out your toaster. Apparently, not everyone is as quick to decide as I am.

The first late return I encountered was a bathing suit return. This was November. Being my first, it took me a few minutes to realize why the system was balking. She'd purchased the suit in June, it was two months past its expiration date (clearly printed at the top of the receipt). She was mildly surprised and disappointed. I was astonished that she thought she could return it at all. Apparently, however, hers was a mild case.

A few customers even get outraged about it. The worst were a pair of girls who proclaimed this the "stupidest return policy ever" several different times. They wanted to know how we could stay in business with such a dumb restriction. One told the other loudly that she wished she'd purchased it from one of our major competitors since they didn't have such a ridiculous limit. Actually, that particular competitor has the exact same time limit, but by this point the girls had exhausted whatever compassion we initially felt, so no one behind the counter felt the need to correct them. They had passed from being customers and moved on to being entertainment as their assertions grew more and more ridiculous (the threat to never return was especially amusing when it finally came). They finally left when they realized that their projected outrage wasn't going to convince any of us to help them skirt around the restriction.

My all time favorite late return, however, is the one I refer to as the Christmas Tree Guy. He had an artificial Christmas tree that was missing some pieces. Unfortunately, he did not have his receipt but there are a number of ways to do a no-receipt return. I couldn't even get started; the system did not recognize the bar code on the side of the box when I scanned it. Odd, but not unheard of. Usually it means our store does not sell the item in question (mostly someone with a gift guessed wrong about where to take it back). In this case, however, the tree was a store brand tree with our logo all over the packaging. Clearly it came from us. Fortunately, when it's our brand, I can usually find the item number and hand enter it when the bar code is missing or damaged. I tried that, but the system still didn't recognize the tree. My boss brought over one of the stock keeping PDAs, still no record of the tree in the system. One of the more experienced team members finally put her finger on the problem: "Isn't that last year's tree model?"