ALTOM: Supermarkets simplify life for grocers, not customers

Tim Altom
March 12, 2011
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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.


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  1. You are correct that Obamacare requires health insurance policies to include richer benefits and protects patients who get sick. That's what I was getting at when I wrote above, "That’s because Obamacare required insurers to take all customers, regardless of their health status, and also established a floor on how skimpy the benefits paid for by health plans could be." I think it's vital to know exactly how much the essential health benefits are costing over previous policies. Unless we know the cost of the law, we can't do a cost-benefit analysis. Taxes were raised in order to offset a 31% rise in health insurance premiums, an increase that paid for richer benefits. Are those richer benefits worth that much or not? That's the question we need to answer. This study at least gets us started on doing so.

  2. *5 employees per floor. Either way its ridiculous.

  3. Jim, thanks for always ready my stuff and providing thoughtful comments. I am sure that someone more familiar with research design and methods could take issue with Kowalski's study. I thought it was of considerable value, however, because so far we have been crediting Obamacare for all the gains in coverage and all price increases, neither of which is entirely fair. This is at least a rigorous attempt to sort things out. Maybe a quixotic attempt, but it's one of the first ones I've seen try to do it in a sophisticated way.

  4. In addition to rewriting history, the paper (or at least your summary of it) ignores that Obamacare policies now must provide "essential health benefits". Maybe Mr Wall has always been insured in a group plan but even group plans had holes you could drive a truck through, like the Colts defensive line last night. Individual plans were even worse. So, when you come up with a study that factors that in, let me know, otherwise the numbers are garbage.

  5. You guys are absolutely right: Cummins should build a massive 80-story high rise, and give each employee 5 floors. Or, I suppose they could always rent out the top floors if they wanted, since downtown office space is bursting at the seams (http://www.ibj.com/article?articleId=49481).