Queue Theory: The Science of Customer Service

The Wall Street Journal: “Imagine three lines feeding three cash registers. Some shoppers will have more items than others, or there may be a delay for something like a price check. The rate of service in the different lines will tend to vary. If the delays are random, there are six ways three lines could be ordered from fastest to slowest—1-2-3, 1-3-2, 2-1-3, 2-3-1, 3-1-2 or 3-2-1. Any one of the three (including the one you picked) is quickest in only two of the permutations, or one-third of the time.”

“Queues can be trivial, like a line at an ATM, or they can be serious, like a list of people waiting for an organ transplant … A basic queue funnels clients demanding service to one or more servers who respond. If the servers are busy, other demands must wait. The clients may include a line of people, a series of 911 calls, or a string of commands issued over a computer network (think of a printer queue). The servers are the cashiers, the dispatchers or the devices that respond.”

“Queuing theory helps untangle the mess of requests, or at least smooth it out, by estimating the number of servers needed to meet demand over a given period and designing rules for advancing the queue. The best system depends on the situation. ‘First come, first served’ is most familiar, and people often prefer it because it seems fair. But most also accept that a heart attack should take precedence over a sprained ankle or someone with five items shouldn’t have to wait behind a procession of brimming shopping carts.”

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The Branding of ‘Bodega’

The Wall Street Journal: “Bodegas are hot. Yes, the humble corner stores, with their grouchy cats and reams of toilet paper, are fast replacing the taxi and the bagel as a symbol of New York authenticity, lending urban credibility to any endeavor. There’s Bodega, the clothing line, and Bodega, an art gallery on the Lower East Side. Not to mention the Bodega, a wine bar in Bushwick, and Bodega Pale Ale, a craft beer only distributed in New York. Bodega 88, a sports bar, opened in August on the Upper West Side, in a former bodega.”

“Bodega Magazine, ‘your literary corner store,’ is an online monthly … Managing editor Cat Richardson says each issue provides a quick, accessible hit of contemporary fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction, with a few surprises thrown in. ‘It has everything you need, like toilet paper, and then something unexpected,’ she says … Mark Littman, founder of Bodega Studios, a video-production agency with offices in Chelsea and San Francisco, says the outfit’s name is a nod to its New York roots and personalized service.”

Bodega Pizza “co-founder Jose Morales, who grew up in the neighborhood working in his father’s bodega, remembers corner stores where everyone gathered to drink and play the Dominican lottery … The facade of his pizzeria … is a yellow metal awning featuring a traditional bodega’s red lettering and flashing bulbs. The front windows are stacked with green tins of Keebler Export Sodas Crackers, pillar candles and faded Brillo boxes. Mr. Morales … says he’ll soon offer groceries along with the pizza. ‘You can eat a nice pie, have a beer and go home with some soap, cereal and toilet paper,’ he says.”

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Wing on Wo & The ‘Wow’ Project

The New York Times: “Wing on Wo’s humble red-painted storefront at 26 Mott Street is said to be the oldest continuously run business in Chinatown. It opened on Mott as a general store in the 1890s … The family that established Wing on Wo more than a century ago still runs things … although the shop’s appearance doesn’t suggest any important heritage. Its shelves are dusty, its pace is sleepy and foot traffic is slow.”

“Wing on Wo’s salvation appeared in Mei Lum, 26, the second-youngest of the family’s five grandchildren … She is now reinventing the shop, molding it into a community space that operates against the backdrop of Chinatown’s history … she envisions a forum for panels on issues like neighborhood politics, exhibitions for local artists and a coffee shop. Ms. Lum held an event recently at the store on the neighborhood’s gentrification, and a planned panel will include influential businesswomen from Chinatown. She calls her concept the W.O.W. Project.”

“Ms. Lum’s new vision for Wing on Wo, ironically, resembles the store’s original incarnation over 100 years ago … General stores like Wing on Wo were crucial hubs in this early village-like stretch. They sold tastes of home like dried fish, herbs and tofu, but they also operated as social clubs, representing Chinese villages and counties, and provided mail and money-wiring services.”

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Foodies & The Single Cow

The Wall Street Journal: “Retailers including Whole Foods Market Inc., FreshDirect, and Amazon.com Inc. are building farm-to-store meat operations that sate some consumers’ desires to trace their burger or bacon all the way back to an individual animal … Other retailers, like Honest Beef Co., are supplying cuts directly to consumers, cutting out the meatpacking middlemen and grocery chains in a foodie twist on traditional mail-order businesses like Omaha Steaks International Inc.”

“Setting up a single-cow supply chain is costly and complex … Customers must be willing to pay princely sums for these cuts. In addition to its minimum order size, Honest Beef charges around $8.50 a pound for dry-age ground beef. Elsewhere, ground beef prices in August averaged $4.25 a pound nationwide … most burgers are made from a combination of lean and fatty scraps left over after higher-value cuts like the T-bone are carved up. That means a 1-pound package of store-bought ground beef could contain meat from hundreds of animals.”

“When officials at online grocer FreshDirect began traveling to Pennsylvania and upstate New York to pitch farmers on ‘disrupting the grocery supply chain,’ the idea was met with skepticism … Today, the skeptics are falling away. Demand for a cut of a cow offered in its ‘hyper, hyper local’ beef, which the Long Island City, N.Y., company can identify down to the group of steers it bought from a particular farm, has been strong since it made its debut last year.”

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Walmart’s Online Pickup Plan

The Washington Post: “Walmart is America’s largest grocer, and its aggressive expansion of pickup services has turned its parking lots into a laboratory for the future of online grocery shopping — one of the trickiest puzzles in all of retail … With the pickup model, Walmart is testing whether its best weapon in this digital fight is its most old-school — and hardest to replicate — asset: a network of more than 4,600 stores.”

“It is counting on a different idea of convenience, one that caters to time-starved suburbanites who spend hours each day in their cars. Maybe for them swinging into a parking lot for a few minutes makes more sense than waiting around the house for a delivery … While Walmart does not disclose sales figures for online grocery pickup, it has taken the program from five markets to more than 80 nationally in the past year.”

“Walmart will have hurdles to clear as it aims to build the free service into a bigger business: For one, shoppers have often been reticent to buy groceries online because they are worried about the quality of the fresh meat and produce … Yet, if the pickup format keeps gaining customer affection, Walmart could be especially well-suited to ride the wave. About 90 percent of Americans live within 10 miles of a Walmart store.”

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Lord & Taylor’s ‘Fast Fashion’ Play

The Wall Street Journal: Lord & Taylor is taking a page from Zara. This summer, when an Isaac Mizrahi off-the-shoulder top nearly sold out days after hitting its stores, the department-store chain had the blouse back in stock in six weeks. It used to take nine months.”

“The quick turnaround was the result of a partnership with New York-based Xcel Brands Inc., which owns the IMNYC Isaac Mizrahi brand among other labels and is trying to make a business selling fast-fashion tricks to traditional brick-and-mortar retailers. Here is what it looks like: Xcel keeps stockpiles of unfinished fabric, so it is available quickly to be dyed, cut and sewn into the latest trend.”

“Lord & Taylor is able to procure the goods at a lower price by eliminating intermediaries and buying directly from the factories. That helps to offset the higher cost of shipping some items by air. Xcel, meanwhile, collects a royalty fee from Lord & Taylor based on retail sales.”

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Tycho: Vinyl, Digital & Musical Culture

The New York Times: “In the age of the surprise digital album, what about the vinyl fans? … Scott Hansen, who records spacey electronic rock under the name Tycho, has come up with one solution. Tycho’s new album, ‘Epoch,’ was released online on Friday … Tycho’s record label, Ghostly International, will be offering a custom slipmat — the felt pad that sits on a turntable — to customers who place advance orders for the vinyl record at their local record store. The slipmat will become available in about two weeks, and physical versions of the album, on both vinyl and CD, will come out in January.”

“The staggered timing lets Mr. Hansen and Ghostly release the music quickly — Mr. Hansen said he put the finishing touches on the recording just two weeks ago — while also giving a tangible dimension to what is otherwise digital ephemera.” He comments: “We’ve always been really concerned with the physical experience. A lot of people want the vinyl so that they feel that this music is real, it’s not just a digital file.”

“For fans of major acts, a surprise online release can create a communal moment, with reactions that ricochet across social media. Sam Valenti IV, the founder of Ghostly, described the slipmat as a ‘passport stamp’ for fans, a way to seize on the release of new music yet still have a keepsake in physical form to function as a placeholder until the final product comes out.” He says: “Streaming music is fantastic, but record stores still have a place as the physical manifestation of music culture. How to balance those things is a beautiful tension right now.”

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Walmart & The Nexus of Hi-Tech and Hi-Touch

Walmart CIO Karenann Terrell: “We’ve observed that online customers have a very, very high level of satisfaction—above 90%—while for those shopping in the store, it isn’t nearly at that high level. We wanted to dig underneath and find out why. The convenience of online ordering, coupled with the special treatment online customers get when they come in person to pick up their orders, leads to a more satisfying experience.”

“We’ve hired dedicated personal shoppers to pick these online grocery orders for customers. They see these customers regularly and know their preferences and begin to know them personally. That has been a huge learning for us in how we will manage stores. One associate wrote a Happy Mother’s Day card to a single mom who visits every week and has a son with Down syndrome.”

“I’m so fascinated with the Internet of Things. It could make a huge difference operationally and with the improvement of the experience for customers … It’s real-time data about goods on the shelf at the time that the customer shops. On-shelf availability means what the customer wants is fully available to them. They don’t say, ‘I wanted Crest Pro Health toothpaste but they were out.’ The Internet of Things is going to rock the world of operational effectiveness.”

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Analog Aesthetics: Where The Cash Register Ka-Chings

The Wall Street Journal: “Like your eccentric buddy who still uses a flip phone, New York is full of shopkeepers who swear by cash registers that are little more than glorified adding machines … At Holyland Market, an Israeli grocery in the East Village, Eran Hileli proclaims the virtues of his $200 Sharp register. It keeps his clerks on their toes … Plus, it’s more satisfying to punch a button than tap a screen.”

“Not to mention cost considerations. Old-school technology is cheap. You can buy an entry-level register and card-reader combo at Staples for $200 … For some merchants, the objection is aesthetic: They don’t want a glowing screen turning their charming shop into the Starship Enterprise … Some even believe a handwritten check adds to a venue’s vibe.”

“On the Bowery, 94-year old Bernard Faerman restores mechanical registers that are older than he is. Prices for the brass beauties start at $2,000 … Customers include Irish bars that want a vintage register for an old-time feel … Mr. Faerman’s son, Brian Faerman, introduces his ancient National Cash Register Class 6000, a beast he refers to as ‘The Big Six.’ Made of steel and big as a mini-fridge, it features a sonorous ka-ching. Why does it sound so good? ‘Because it’s awesome,, the younger Mr. Faerman says.”

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Terms of Service: Ownership Not Included

Quartz: “When you purchase an ebook you must agree to the Terms of Service (TOS) that tell you what you can do with it … An overwhelming majority of internet users agree to them without reading them. In one experiment 98% of users failed to notice a clause requiring them to give up their first-born as payment.”

“Using contracts to make an end-run around property law predates the web … Licensing contracts provided software businesses with a tool to control what the buyer did with their software, without the overhead of negotiating terms with each customer … Licensing agreements have been supplemented by far more pervasive TOS contracts, which extend similar protections to websites and other services. Consumer protections have, if anything, gotten weaker. People who were once owners have been transformed into mere users.”

“Despite tremendous erosion of property rights, most consumers transitioning to digital media have so far avoided the pain of losing anything they really cared about. Few have had a favorite ebook deleted or been embroiled in a legal argument over their digital inheritance. The attitudes of young adults make ownership seem positively passé. Rates of homeownership are down, the ‘sharing economy’ is up, and everything that can be streamed will be streamed … However, it may also be that most people simply haven’t yet realized that they’ve given anything up.”

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