Check It Out

I never plan to write blog posts – ideas just tend to pop into my head when doing random stuff. Today was one of those days. What follows isn’t particularly exciting, shocking or controversial, and no doubt I will be mercilessly ribbed by certain people for noticing another systems thinking lesson in such a drab, everyday context. I suppose I deserve it.

Yes, my high-octane Sunday afternoon inspiration arose from the mundane setting of a local supermarket. I noticed this particular supermarket adopts a slightly different policy at the checkout – instead of you bagging up your shopping at the checkout whilst items are being scanned, the till operator scans your shopping at the speed of light as you frantically throw items back into your trolley once they have been scanned. Next, customers wheel their trolleys to one side and only then can they put their shopping into carrier bags.

At first I couldn’t help noticing how fast the queues were moving at the tills. I was impressed. (I’m easily impressed). I wondered whether not allowing customers time to bag up their purchases whilst at the till was in fact a better way of running a checkout system, as it appeared to cause the flow of customers to move faster. Being a proper systems geek I gave this some thought as I was chucking my items back into the trolley and continued to muse over the pros and cons of the approach as I subsequently bagged up my beer, crisps and other essentials.

The conclusion I came to was counterintuitive. On the surface, this supermarket chain’s policy of not letting customers put items straight into their bags whilst at the checkout seems like a great idea for initiating faster throughput and reducing queuing time. But is it all smoke and mirrors?

I think so, and here’s why:

  • The time spent standing at the checkout is only part of the process; therefore if I was sad enough to stand at the tills with a stopwatch and work out the average time per customer, the results would not reflect the true end-to-end time.
  • When attempting to understand any process, the most important thing is to consider it from the perspective of the customer (or service user). In this case, when the customer moves away from the checkout, he or she still has to contend with the unfinished business of packing carrier bags. Therefore the end-to-end time for what matters to the customer extends to when their bags are finally packed. This approach actually stretches that out, rather than shorten it.
  • I couldn’t help but feel that the act of hurriedly putting my scanned items back into the trolley was waste activity. Why would you want to put your stuff back in the trolley, only to take it out again a few moments later to place into carrier bags? This stage of the process does not exist at all in the traditional model – it does not add value and is therefore waste.
  • If you are relatively organised regarding how you put your shopping on the conveyor belt in the first place (e.g. heavy things first) then if you bag it up as you go along, your bags are nicely packed and that massive jar of pickles doesn’t end up flattening your punnet of raspberries, or whatever. The method I experienced today might be quicker in terms of time spent at the checkout, but it means all your shopping gets mixed up again in the trolley. The consequences are that you either have to then pick through the items to pack them properly, or you just throw everything in carrier bags as they come back out of the trolley, risking berry damage. This means that either more of your time is taken up during the packing stage, or risk of squashing is heightened. Inconvenience either way!

So, my assessment of this supermarket’s alternative till policy is that yes, it looks sleek at first glance, but any apparent efficiency is mired by the process actually causing the ‘real’ end-to-end time to be extended, as well as introducing a new unnecessary stage that has the knock-on effect of causing further inconvenience to the customer.

If I was a betting man, I reckon that if you were to time how long it takes from the moment a customer’s shopping hits the conveyor belt to the moment the last item is safely bagged up, the traditional method of packing shopping bags at the checkout would be faster. The alternative method experienced today gives the illusion of speed because the observer is only focussed on one part of the process.

What does this prove? Well apart from the fact that I obviously think too deeply, the lesson here is don’t be fooled by flashy new methods or operating models. Look at the entire process, not just the bit that seems the most obvious or impressive, and always assess benefit from the perspective of the customer or service user.

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About InspGuilfoyle

I am a serving Police Inspector and systems thinker. I am passionate about doing the right thing in policing. I have a big problem with numerical targets, unnecessary bureaucracy, and anything else that stops police officers from providing the best possible service. I believe that by adopting a systems approach, policing can be transformed beyond the wildest expectations of many.
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10 Responses to Check It Out

  1. Huw Sayer says:

    What a hellish experience. Aside from whether this is really a ‘good system’, I would suggest it is like to seriously damage the brand (assuming they have one worth worrying about). Certainly, I would not shop at any supermarket that treated me like this – or made me feel rushed at the checkout.

  2. Gargine says:

    What kind of looney thought this process up? I work in a customer facing industry which can get caught up in its own procedures and process a bit too much but when it gets down to it customers want a smooth experience that makes sense and mets their needs, not too much to ask surely. This doesn’t sound like it does at all
    Mind you you write well as for what could have been a boring topic I read it right to the end….. Or does that say something about me !! :-)

    I like your work :-)

  3. Blue Eyes says:

    YES!

    I agree with Huw above. I feel pressured enough as it is when the checkout person throws the stuff across the scanner and then silently tuts while I bag up and pay.

    As for the illusion of time-saving, someone did a study many years ago about Post Office queues. People prefer the “fairness” of the current system where there is one queue and the person at the head of the queue gets served by the next available staff member. However the old system of having a queue for each counter is more efficient overall!

  4. @barrackslass says:

    I love your last line as I think this sums up the view often taken in relation to novel ideas, ie they just look at one section and not the whole process. However, I have to say that I shop at a number of supermarkets that use this system (yes I like a bargain!) and you soon develop a process as you suggested of putting your shopping on the conveyor belt in such a way that I then goes back into my trolley in an organised way that actually assists my final packing process! Sad, I know, but even if it is less efficient overall, I like the fact that I never have to queue for long and am quite happy to re-pack my bags in order to achieve this! I suppose you can’t please everyone all the time!

  5. There have been loads of studies of queues. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Queueing_theory

    The theories sometimes get used for call centre/control room resourcing calculations. They also have huge implications across areas of business such as managing tasks and crime investigations, response team resources, shift patterns, traffic and crowd management. Anything where queues can build up.

    Some of the relevant points (and in no way would I profess to be an expert, it’s just what I’ve picked up as things to be aware of):
    – if customer flows are erratic, queues will build up; so when setting resource levels, you need to build in sufficient to cope with peaks. Some supermarkets keep staff doing other tasks until a queue starts to form, and then call in ‘multi-skilled staff’ to check-outs. If we can’t afford to resource teams to match the peaks, how can we gain more flexibility from the staff that are available?
    – a small improvement in the time taken to complete a task can produce a large reduction in the length of the queue. Some supermarkets aim to open more tills in order to cut queues. That works, but is costly in resources. Aldi and Lidl have concentrated on cutting the time taken to go through the tills. First, they have long conveyor belts – cashiers don’t have to wait for customers to unload their trolleys because they couldn’t fit their shopping on the belt. Second, the cashiers don’t have to wait for customers to put their goods into bags before they can pay.

    Aldi and Lidl have obviously studied customer patterns and workflows. The longer tills eat into store space. Not everyone likes the Aldi/Lidl way of doing things, but are prepared to do it for the lower prices. Tescos and Sainsburys know that customers do not like waiting in queues, so have employed extra staff at peak times. In Aldi/Lidl you just have to wait a bit longer if it’s busy. My experience of German supermarkets is that they are generally less concerned about ‘service’, and the Aldi/Lidl approach is more the product of ‘efficiency’ – how to speed up the customer flow without employing more staff.

    • Thanks for sharing your observations. I find queuing theory fascinating (there goes what was left of my street cred) – it goes to show how important it is to design your system or process against demand, otherwise you get unevenness as you describe, as well as bottlenecks, delays and other waste. I still think that in this case there is nothing mutually exclusive about the shop offering products at bargain prices and operating a ‘traditional’ checkout model though.

      If the root cause for the existence of this model is because the company deliberately posts insufficient till operators to meet predictable demand in order to save money (thereby enabling it to offer products more cheaply), I’m not sure that the relatively small savings in wages would significantly affect pricing policies or outweigh potential customer inconvenience anyway. Who knows? Unknown and unknowable.

      One of the other replies mentions numerical targets – imagine how much worse that makes it. The poor till operator is further dehumanized and there is no opportunity for human interaction at the point of sale due to the rush. And after all that, the likelihood is that the real ‘queue’ (i.e. as measured against the true end-to-end time) is still longer, whilst the insufficient capacity at the impressively-fast scanning stage means that waiting time increases with each person who joins the queue and won’t begin to level out until there’s a gap in demand.

      I do like their wine selection by the way…

  6. patently says:

    It’s an excellent system, for the supermarket. The till operators cost money by the hour, and they are used at peak efficiency. Effectively, they are focusing the high-skill high-cost till operators on their core till operation function while deploying low-skill low- cost tables for the non-core bagging function. Everything is good, provided you don’t care two hoots about the impression you give to your customers, as Huw and Blue Eyes show.

    Now, why does this remind me of Police Community Support Officers?

  7. Great post!

    Below is a quote from a Guardian article in 2007 about Lidl’s arbitary numerical targets and the unintended consequences of having to work so quickly.

    “Some Lidl workers complain not just about the long hours, but about the pressure they are put under in stores that seem deliberately to have minimal staff in order to save money. For example, checkout staff say they are told to put 35-40 items a minute through the till. Their average speed is recorded on the till’s computer and is checked by managers each night. The task is made all the more difficult by the fear of “mystery shoppers”, who are employed to try to outsmart staff with devious ways of sneaking goods past the checkouts, says Ludwig. “One guy got in trouble when a mystery shopper bought a box of wine, that appeared to contain six of the same bottles of bottom-of-the-range wine. But the mystery shopper had switched all but the two visible bottles for a more expensive vintage, and because of the pressure to work as quickly as possible, the checkout guy didn’t realise.”

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2007/mar/14/businesscomment.supermarkets

  8. The dreaded targets regime! If you put pressure on staff to swipe goods through quickly, you’re bound to get mistakes. But of course that’s not the management’s fault, that’s down the dodgy staff. Woolworths used to make staff wear outfits without pockets so they couldn’t nick the pick’n’mix. I am amazed how few store staff Aldi and Lidl can get away with. They don’t need too many shelf stackers either. I used to live in Germany, and shopped in Aldi before they arrived in the UK. They have a standardised model, every store the same, and a priority on cutting costs. German shoppers tend to prioritise cost/value over service/frills. They’ve simply imported the same model over here, and elsewhere across Europe. Apart from at the peak shopping times, though, many of the stores are usually pretty quiet.

    They must generate a huge amount of waste. I love seeing the pallets full of tins of Knackwurst and Sauerkraut, and other products you rarely see outside Mitteleuropa. All schlepped across hundreds of kilometres, direct from the warehouse at Wolfenbuttel to the store at Wolverhampton. But who in Middle England actually buys those things? They have had to anglicise their food ranges at lot down the years, with Roggenbrot and Bauernspeck being replaced by White Sliced and Bacon, and brown sauce and malt vinegar appearing. They seem to have found a reasonable range now, but you still see the odd product cropping up which I would guess most of us couldn’t even pronounce, let alone try to work out what the translation in 10 different languages means.

    The middle aisles of their stores are always chock full of peculiar non-food items. Every so often I like to pop in and see if I can spot a bargain, such as a laser guided bolied egg cutter or ventilated thermal wind-sock. You never know when it could come in handy! They must sit in those crates for weeks and weeks, next to the half-opened packets of broken Lebkuchen biscuits. On the other hand, when there is something good in, they’re usually sold out straight away. Tescos wouldn’t willingly tolerate such a waste of sales space, lack of turnover, and missed opportunities to flog you something.

    So, which model is most ‘efficient’? Which model is likely to earn long term customer loyalty to see you through tough times?

    Their wine and beer selections are pretty good, though. Some real gems. Every so often they used to stock some decent German wines, the stuff you can never normally get hold of over here. But they seem to have stopped doing that as well. Shame.

  9. Pingback: Beware New Brooms in Systems and Process « Dave's Bankside Babble

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