business news in context, analysis with attitude

We posted a story yesterday about how Home Depot plans to install self-serve aisles in about half its 1,487 stores by the end of next year, a move made to speed up the checkout experience. Our view: “You have to do everything else at Home Depot by yourself, why not check out? This is a store format that screams out for more human contact, not less…but instead, Home Depot makes the same mistake that so many supermarkets make, in our view -- taking the human equation out of the shopping experience.”

It was a commentary than generated quite a bit of email response.

MNB user Bill Duncan wrote:

“Home Depot is attacking their biggest problem...too many customers which result in checkout lines that are just too long. They do a pretty good job in my opinion providing qualified people to answer questions in the various DIY departments...considering the volume of customers. That's where it counts. I don't need interaction at checkout when I'm buying flooring or plumbing parts. I need it back in the departments. I won't shop there on a weekend because the checkout lines are too long. The challenge at Home Depot will be teaching customers to scan the wide variety of items but then again, what's the difference between checking out with three varieties of apples and three different sizes of galvanized deck bolts. I wish them good luck and I hope they bring self check out soon to northern VA.”

This is exactly why self-checkout at home Depot scares us. What the hell is a galvanized deck bolt?

(As we’ve admitted before, we were born without the hardware gene, and are the antithesis of a do-it-yourselfer. We do make good meatloaf, however…)

Another MNB user wrote:

“This move by Home Depot is a smart one and shows good foresight. For every hour they replace at a checkout they can spend another hour out on the sales floor having direct contact with the customer that will result in greater sales at the end of the day. Most relationship building in traditional retail takes place on the sales floor. The transaction part of the business has slowly become trivial and time consuming. Selling is proving to become a key ingredient in the new retail business model. The challenge is to now support good selling skills and service ability to employees so that the customer can see clearly how service has improved and Home Depot is a better place to do business. I look for ward to more positive changes like this.”

MNB user Mark Boyer wrote:

“The shame about Home Depot is that a handful of their employees are so knowledgeable you want to invite them over to help you with your project. At least with self checkout you don't have to look and wait for someone to help you.”

Another member of the MNB community wrote

“I know you're vehemently anti-self-checkout. BUT (you knew that was coming, right?) when all I need is a package of picture hangars, I don't need, and truthfully don't want, a lot of interaction. I want to go in, buy my picture hangars, and leave. Right now, I go in, find the hangars, and stand in line behind four guys each buying supplies to remodel a room, which takes forever as they wrestle everything past the scanners. It takes me longer to actually make the purchase than it does to use the products!

“Same case with the grocery -- tonight when I ‘run’ through the store to buy a loaf of bread and a gallon of milk -- I just want to get my purchases and leave - I don't want to interact with anyone, as I'm rushing from work to grocery to daycare, then home to fix dinner, try to get a three-year-old to eat (no small challenge), clean up, bathtime, story, and bedtime -- all before 9 pm. If I want or need interaction, I'll find it -- but for small purchases, PLEASE give me the option to move on through. You're right -- the stores SHOULD be using those freed-up people to stock shelves, greet people, help find items, etc. -- and they don't, but there are days I just need to get in and get out quickly.”

Fair enough. We’ve had plenty of those sorts of days, both at the grocery store and at Home Depot.

But let’s be clear about our objection. It’s not that we think self-checkout is a bad idea. We just think that too many retailers view it as a way to cut labor costs, as opposed to seeing it as a way to deploy labor in other places where it might be needed. Putting clearly identified store ambassadors in strategic locations on busy days could go a long way toward creating relationships between shopper and shopkeeper…and unless we’re wrong, that should be what this whole thing is about.

We’re not alone in this. One MNB user wrote:

“While it is nice to see that Home Depot is concerned with expediting their check-out process, I think a larger problem should be addressed first. In my opinion, the larger problem is finding an employee in the store to help you. Should you need assistance in selecting an item, it is always difficult to find an employee who is not busy with someone else. Unfortunately, a consumer's time is spent searching for help, not so much "checking-out" at the register. Once found, Home Depot employees are very helpful and typically knowledgeable. The consumer's shopping experience would be more satisfactory if they could spend less time searching for the item they came for.”

MNB user Janet Spence wrote:

“I agree....One of my biggest frustrations is walking around Home Depot in search of a store employee who can lend a hand. With such a large number of items on high shelves, no pricing and too many options to choose from human contact is a necessity. I can only think that people running around trying to find their own price check will deter them from venturing out to Home Depot.”

Wouldn’t it be interesting if there were someone out there who created a Neighborhood Market-style hardware store, a format that had the power of chain marketing and buying, but could recreate the atmosphere of the old-time hardware stores that Home Depot put out of business?

One member of the MNB community wrote:

“I couldn't agree with you more, I have written numerous letters to the supermarket that I shop at regarding the trend to Self Serve Departments. I don't understand why management can't see that suggestive selling, sampling, and human contact increase sales. Why is Nordstrom's so successful?”

When Nordstrom goes to self-checkout, that’s when we’ll know it is time to look for a new line of work…

One MNB user wrote:

“You are right about the human touch... but only if that experience is a pleasant one. Home Depot must have the worst trained employees in America. I, for one, would LOVE to check out myself without encountering the usual uncaring, rude, slow, incompetent Home Depot cashier.

“I laugh when I see their TV ads depicting friendly, knowledgeable employees... what a joke.

“I am not a fan of self checkout but the day Home Depot cashiers give its customers an enjoyable 'human touch' is the day I will be willing to stand in their ridiculously long check out lines...”

Another MNB user wrote:

“Some shoppers seem to be happy with the self-checkout lanes in my supermarket. They are probably the same people who find it expedient to pass me on the double yellows on the road. Though I'm resistant to change I have forced myself to use the dang self-checkout and invariably end up swearing at it. These machines do not agree with the idea that "the customer is always right". I vastly prefer the little mom-and-pop operation down the road from my house. The selection is smaller but the cashier always asks how I'm doing and we chat about the weather or perhaps the fact that her feet have had it for the day and we always end the interaction with the all-important "Have a great day" or "Good Night". Right now marketing is all about relationship with customers. Removing live human beings from the experience and replacing them with cold, bleeping automation feels like taking that relationship for granted.”

Again, we would point out that technology doesn’t necessarily replace human interaction…unless the technology is used that way by human beings. You could argue that the technology that makes email possible has done a great deal to heighten human connections…

We’ve had an ongoing dialogue here on MNB about how Publix Super Markets reportedly is beginning to advertise its online shopping efforts in a number of online venues, but apparently does not currently collect email addresses of its brick-and-mortar customers…which, if true, we simply don’t understand. That seems to us to be the lowest fruit on the tree for any retailer…that asking shoppers for their email addresses is easy to do, and that responding to those who give out their email addresses is a simple and effective way to communicate with shoppers.

A member of the MNB community wrote in to set us straight:

“As you well know, I am a huge fan of the folks in Lakeland, and drive 15 miles (past 2 Winn-Dixies and 2 Kash-n-Karrys) to shop under the big green P. I can confirm for you that they do not collect email addresses in the store or on their website. They are very protective of their customers (YAY!) and their data, and don't even have a loyalty program anymore -- they folded that several years ago. They don't have any type of tracking devices at the registers (like Catalina Marketing's coupon machines), and publicly announce that they don't foresee it, either. This is a double-edged sword for me -- I like having discounts as much as the next girl, but I looooove the fact that they're not bombarding me with coupons they think I might need. They do, however, have several mail clubs -- they have the Baby Club (for moms-to-be and kids to age 2), Family Matters (general interest), Green Matters (focused on organic and/or health foods), and their new Preschool Pals (ages 2-4) programs -- all have a monthly glossy magazine loaded with coupons, but sent only on request. Their growth in recent years would indicate that their lack of an "ordinary" loyalty program hasn't hurt them a bit. (By the way, I'm not affiliated with them in any way, other than being a loyal customer.)”

Please understand, we’re not suggesting that Publix or any other company use email to reach customers who do not want to be reached that way. But we think there are an awful lot of people who like getting emails that provide them with relevant information…the same kind of information that they’d be getting as a member of any of the clubs you mentioned. What would be the harm of asking if people would like to get information by email, and then only communicating that way to people who say “yes”?

On the subject of the value of branding to retailers in general, and Martha Stewart’s brand value to Kmart specifically, one MNB user added to the ongoing conversation:

“I think you hit the nail on the head with your conclusion that Phillippe Stark and Todd Oldham pushed the envelope of Target's market – that merchandise was quirky and cute, but not really something a thirty-(muffled) suburban mom would buy! (Targeting the college market isn't a bad idea, but they're not the typical Target consumer -- in income levels or taste.) I would suggest for comparison the success of the Michael Graves line -- clean, sophisticated design adapted to items you own anyway. I also am part of a large group of women who CAN'T STAND Martha Stewart -- all of the designs are dowdy and way too traditional, and we resent her attitude. She presents everything as if you have to do all of these things, and if you don't/can't, you're shirking your duty as a wife and mother. Rubbish!! -- If I were single, my kid(s) were adult and on their own, I had an enormous old house and boatloads of money, a housekeeper, a caretaker, and a gardener, you can bet I'd be creative and do things from scratch, too. I'd like her to live MY life (family, career, grad school, hubby, house, and more) and still have time for all the foofoo. I make cookies from scratch, and I do as much as I can in a 24-hour period, but Kmart can keep her.”

Can’t argue with that.

We had a story yesterday about Starbuck’s continued strong growth, which prompted MNB user Allen Tackett to write:

“Starbuck's strong numbers are impressive because their sales growth has come from growing the specialty coffee category - not cannibalizing market share from small coffee houses as many are quick to believe. I expect this category to continue growing (as does the SCAA), driven by not only regional coffee shops expanding nationally, but also by an increased number of independents opening up in the Midwest and East Coast.”

We had a story yesterday about a small rise in “mom and pop shops,” which seemed to contradict conventional wisdom that such business are in decline. But one MNB user saw the numbers a different way:

“As a mom & pop owner I would offer this caveat. What is the real value of those numbers that the Census Bureau is offering? Our operation is a shop in a tiny tourist town (actually two shops, there wasn't enough room in one for both mom and pop) that is barely supporting itself, certainly not providing additional income to the family finances. We have 2-1/2 "real" jobs and the shops are weekend entertainment. My guess is that there are very few of our fellow shopkeepers who can claim much more, and there are approximately 150 of them in our village alone. So, on the books we are one digit in that small retail column, but our contribution to the overall economy is pretty nil. By the way, we're not planning on hiring additional staff in 2003 either, we just guilt son and heir into lending a hand. ‘There are lies, damned lies, and statistics.’”

By the way, on this subject, check out the cartoon on page 83 of the December 2 issue of The New Yorker.

In response Monday’s story about Wal-Mart’s record day-after-Thanksgiving sales numbers, MNB user Dave Wiles wrote that such numbers can be a problem – next year. But MNB user Marv Imus sees it differently:

“Sure, sure, sure … but they should be able to increase sales every year for the foreseeable future EASILY ! They were quoted as the increase was due to larger baskets and more shoppers … now I do not dispute their claim BUT what was the increase on same store sales ? 3% of 1.25 billion is $37 million … and their increase was $180 million … You build 200 supercenters and 50 discount stores a year and you automatically set records ever year.”
KC's View: