ALTOM: Supermarkets simplify life for grocers, not customers

Tim Altom
March 12, 2011
Back to TopCommentsE-mailPrintBookmark and Share
Tim Altom

I have a fetish for efficiency. It pains me to watch people doing things two, three or more times when they should be doing it only once.

I’ve previously written about how American medical care obliges us to fill out paperwork all over again when we see a new health care provider, when the very same data could be made portable. I noted in that column that the problem persisted because the inefficiencies didn’t bite the medical practice, but the patient. If medical personnel had to fill out that paperwork each time, something likely would be done about it.

Inefficiency is doubly irksome to me when it falls on the customer, and not on the provider. Medical practices have been slow to adopt technological efficiencies and, when they do, they get the same boosts other industries have enjoyed for a long time. Yet the patient continues to need scribbled lists of medications and previous treatments they can drag from office to office, reproducing the very same information numerous times on different forms. There is some movement toward practices having online forms for this same duty, but it’s not ultimately more efficient, because each practice still has its own online form.

Perhaps the ultimate imposition on the customer, however, isn’t in the medical community, but in the supermarket. The food industry has provided itself with lots of technological helpers. Inventory is now conducted by a small group of people tapping on handheld devices. My local supermarket even has a queuing analysis system that supposedly figures out how many checkout lanes should be open at any one time, and how many will likely have to be opened soon.

I know all this because they put it on a screen overhead for everyone to see and ask questions about. And of course the checkout process is a perpetual river of flowing goods on their way out the door, thanks to barcodes and scanners. A checker today can overwhelm the bagger waiting at the end of the checkout line. Credit-card scanners speed up payment considerably from the days when you had to write checks. Today, people who write checks are actually clogging up the operation.

That’s not to say the credit-card scanners are always good for customers, because they’re not. They’re some of the most unusable, befuddling pieces of public-use technology I know, but that’s another column. The checkout process is so simplified now that many stores encourage you to check out by yourself. This has to be a retailer’s dream —the customer does everything, and you do almost nothing but provide equipment and stock.

My beef (if you’ll pardon the pun) isn’t with checkout speed, which I consider one of the 20th century’s major achievements, but with customer product handling, which has received no attention at all. Consider how often someone must handle the food you buy. You first have to pluck it from a shelf and put it in your cart. That’s once. At the checkout, you must now unload every item, undoing everything you just did. That’s twice. The checker has to sweep it past the scanner. That’s three. The bagger has to sort it and bag it. That’s four. Then they have to go into the cart again. That’s five.

When you get to your car, you have to lift it all out of the cart and put it into the vehicle. That’s six. When you get home, you have to pull it out of the car and take it in. That’s seven. Then you have to individually unbag and put it back on a shelf. That’s eight. Eight touches to get a product from the supermarket shelf to your home shelf. And you have to do five of them yourself.

There are many times when I think, “If I could invent something for this sorry situation, I’d make a fortune,” but, as you can probably tell, my fortune is still in someone else’s name somewhere, so I’m not claiming I have a solution. But I’d be willing to bet that if the supermarket had to write checks for all eight steps, those eight steps would be quickly whittled down somehow. Look how few steps the store takes to get you checked out.

But as consumers, we don’t get to promote efficiency unless we’re inventors, and then only a small fraction of inventions are actually adopted. Efficiency technology abounds for industry. Look at the transportation industry’s adoption of standardized containers. But benefits to the customer are usually incidental.

In most cases, little thought is being given to the inefficiencies customers have to endure. Increasingly, customers are pressed for time every bit as much as businesses are, yet their needs often go unmet. Faster checkout does help get the customer out and gone quicker, but that’s old news. What have you done for those customers lately?•


Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at taltom@ibj.com.


Post a comment to this story

We reserve the right to remove any post that we feel is obscene, profane, vulgar, racist, sexually explicit, abusive, or hateful.
You are legally responsible for what you post and your anonymity is not guaranteed.
Posts that insult, defame, threaten, harass or abuse other readers or people mentioned in IBJ editorial content are also subject to removal. Please respect the privacy of individuals and refrain from posting personal information.
No solicitations, spamming or advertisements are allowed. Readers may post links to other informational websites that are relevant to the topic at hand, but please do not link to objectionable material.
We may remove messages that are unrelated to the topic, encourage illegal activity, use all capital letters or are unreadable.

Messages that are flagged by readers as objectionable will be reviewed and may or may not be removed. Please do not flag a post simply because you disagree with it.

Sponsored by

facebook - twitter on Facebook & Twitter

Follow on TwitterFollow IBJ on Facebook:
Follow on TwitterFollow IBJ's Tweets on these topics:
Subscribe to IBJ
  1. I think the poster was being sarcastic and only posting or making fun of what is usually posted on here about anything being built in BR or d'town for that matter.

  2. Great news IRL fans: TURBO the IMS sanctioned movie about slugs running the Indy 500 has caught the Securities and Exchange Commission because Dreamworks had to take a $132MILLION write down...because the movie was such a flop. See, the Indy/IMS magic soiled another pair of drawers. Bwahahahahahaha! How's CARTOWN doing? HAHAHAHA...Indy is for losers.

  3. So disappointed in WIBC. This is the last straw to lose a good local morning program. I used to be able to rely on WIBC to give me good local information, news, weather and traffic on my 45 minute commute.Two incidents when I needed local, accurate information regarding severe weather were the first signs I could not now rely on WIBC. I work weekend 12 hour nights for a downtown hospital. This past winter when we had the worst snowfall in my 50 years of life, I came home on a Sunday morning, went to sleep (because I was to go back in Sunday night for another 12 hour shift), and woke up around 1 p.m. to a house with no electricity. I keep an old battery powered radio around and turned on WIBC to see what was going on with the winter storm and the roads and the power outage. Sigh. Only policital stuff. Not even a break in to update on the winter storm warning. The second weather incident occurred when I was driving home during a severe thunderstorm a few months ago. I had already gotten a call from my husband that a tornado warning was just southwest of where I had been. I turned to WIBC to find out what direction the storm was headed so I could figure out a route home, only to find Rush on the air, and again, no breaking away from this stupidity to give me information. Thank God for my phone, which gave me the warning that I was driving in an area where a tornado was seen. Thanks for nothing WIBC. Good luck to you, Steve! We need more of you and not the politics of hatred that WIBC wants to shove at us. Good thing I have Satellite radio.

  4. I read the retail roundup article and tried Burritos and Beers tonight. I'm glad I did, for the food was great. Fresh authentic Mexican food. Great seasoning on the carne asada. A must try!!! Thanks for sharing.

  5. John, unfortunately CTRWD wants to put the tank(s) right next to a nature preserve and at the southern entrance to Carmel off of Keystone. Not exactly the kind of message you want to send to residents and visitors (come see our tanks as you enter our city and we build stuff in nature preserves...