In-store search station

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I've been wondering about this ever since computers started being commonplace, and the wondering only grows more acute as the technology continues to get cheaper and more a part of how people live their lives:

When I go into the grocery store, and I'm looking for something, why isn't there a terminal I can walk up to and search for the item – to find, for example what aisle it's in and what it costs?

It could also easily answer other sales-driving questions such as:

  • How many are there in stock?
  • Are there any more in the back room (in case I need more than they have on the shelf)?
  • If they are out of stock, can I special order them?
  • Are there quantity discounts available?
  • When the item is back in stock, can you notify me by email?
  • Do you plan to order more of this item? If so, when (or is it already on order)?
  • Is it still available from the manufacturer, or has it been discontinued?1 If so, is there a substitute?
  • Can I request an item that you do not currently carry2
  • Have other people expressed interest in the item that I am interested in, or should I give up and shop somewhere else for it?

What Exists Now

One of the few places to take a baby-step in this direction is Target, which has wall-mount barcode-scanners throughout their stores. We use them regularly to to make sure that the item in hand matches the price on the shelf (or the sale-price-as-we-understand-it). I've noticed that it also covertly provides a little extra information at the bottom of the screen, part of which looks like an inventory count showing how many are on the shelf and how many are in the back room (if I remember right).

Kmart and I think Wal-Mart also provide such scanners, though they're much sparser and harder to find (I think it was KMart that seemed to have about 2 in the entire store; Target must have at least half a dozen, always within about 5 aisles of wherever you are).

The fact that they can do this much serves to reinforce the point that the infrastructure is there: the stocking computer knows what's in stock and how much it costs.

AIUI3, the cash registers consult the same computer when people buy things, and automatically remove them from the stock records as they are purchased. In most stores, the computer knows which aisle and section the item is in. Squads of people regularly go around with hand-held scanners and verify that quantities are where the computer expects them to be. Some stores pay outside contractors to do this; others manage it in-house.

Not only that, but the larger stores pay very close attention to where things are placed. Eye-level placement and the "impulse racks" near the check-out lines are especially favored locations, and a great deal of brainpower and processing goes into deciding which items go there, and for how long.

Managing all this is a very well-refined art, critical to how the stores do business.

So, if the computer knows where things are, and how much they cost, and how many are in stock, why don't the stores just tack on a web interface to let their customers find out this information? If they wanted to avoid taking up valuable space in the aisles, they could put the terminals up front, next to the terminals where you apply for a job. (Or the job terminals could do double-duty: press one button to apply for a job, press another to search the store's inventory.) If they didn't want to do that, then they could at least make the search available on their web site4.

One Possible Argument

The argument I've always heard -- and I don't know if it's true or just an urban myth (assumed by a few and repeated by many as reasonable-sounding) -- is that Those Who Are Wise and Vers'd in the Arcane Artes of Producte Plaisment5 (the people who decide, for example, which items go at eye-level and which items get the coveted Check Out Line spot) decided long ago that it's actually a good thing when people spend hours wandering around stores looking for stuff, because then they see more stuff they want and consequently buy more stuff every time they visit.

Let's look at this argument for a bit; it seems to consist of the following beliefs:

  1. When someone is looking for something and can't find it, they spend more time wandering around lost.
  2. When someone spends more time wandering around, they are more likely to buy additional things.
  3. It is good when people buy additional things.
  4. THEREFORE it is good when people don't know where in the store to find the things they wanted when they first came in.

Whether or not the conclusion is correct, I can certainly believe that product placement5 gurus might accept it as true, and accordingly be utterly uninterested in (and possibly even somewhat averse to) helping people to find stuff too quickly.

I can also accept the truth of items #1 and #2.

  1. 3 is true in a short-term kind of way, but I would argue that if you always find yourself coming out of a store having spent far more than you intended to, you might start to avoid that store in the future.

I would also argue that if you always find yourself wandering around lost in a store and unable to find what you went there for in the first place, it doesn't matter how many wonderful other things you found in the process; the store will be forever marked with a little "frustration" flag in your head, and you will tend to avoid it.6

Even if #3 and the conclusion (#4) turn out to be completely true, however, and unsullied by any counterbalancing considerations, what this essentially means is that the stores aren't providing search engines because they have decided it is more important to make a larger profit (how much larger? I can't see this being more than a marginal thing) than to serve the customer to the best of their ability.


Attempt #1: Durham Central Market

There is a new grocery co-op starting up in this area (scheduled to open in 2012).

Being a co-op, their primary mission is to serve the customer -- because their customers are literally their owners. So even if the bottom-line argument against stock search engines is entirely true, it should not apply to a co-op. They should be interested in this.

They also won't have the handicap of having to retrofit web-access to some ancient mainframe-based stocking system, or some outside company's proprietary turnkey system which they paid a zillion dollars for and now can't afford to switch away from (even to a free alternative) because of how deeply its tendrils have sunk into their business practices.

I looked on their web site to see if there were any forums on which these issues might be brought up, but found only a link to their Facebook page, which I totally couldn't figure out how to make a comment on8.

Being on their mailing list, I approached them via email with the idea of getting involved on an IT level so that I could discuss the "search station" idea with the other IT people (who presumably would have more retail IT experience than I do) and then, if that went well, with management (who could tell me if there were any compelling business reasons not to do it). I got a positive response as far as volunteering, and was told that something would soon happen as far as connecting me with other people involved with IT.

Having gotten that far, the obvious next step was to establish some kind of online venue for discussion, since meeting in person did not seem like the most efficient way to get things done (especially since none of us would be getting paid for our time in the near future).

I suggested, to the same contact who had welcomed my IT participation, that some kind of forum or wiki software seemed like a really good idea, and that I would be happy to set this up and host it at no charge; she said she would have to run it by the Board...

(small red flag goes up: okay, I can see how we might need the Board's involvement to make it official, and maybe authorize the use of their domain name or server or something, but really, shouldn't this be an IT decision, at least for the short run? But okay, let's make it official and see if there are any problems with the idea, or considerations they want addressed.)

..who promptly dismissed it, apparently on the grounds that it wouldn't be enough of a draw -- entirely missing the point that it was not intended as a publicity machine (at least, not directly) but as a venue for discussion.

I sent her another email explaining this; she went to the Board again, and they said the same thing.

I am done arguing with brick walls. If they are not interested in open dialogue with workers and customers, then they are probably not a project I want to be involved with.


1. Brownberry Health Nut bread, before they got bought out by Arnold Baking.
2. Marie Callender Herb Roasted Chicken -- Target carries other products in this line, but not that one. So we have to go to Kroger for that one item -- which is pretty much the only reason we go to Kroger anymore. Target salesmanship FAIL.
3. As I Understand It
4. Yes, Target's web site lets you search for items, and will tell you whether it's in stock in the stores nearest to you -- but they won't tell you where it is in the store, much less any of the other items on my wish-list (above).
5. This is probably the wrong jargon, but it's at least descriptive.
6. There's probably market research somewhere which proves me wrong -- but I'd like to see exactly how they determined this. Science is about asking questions. A poorly-designed study often answers a completely different question than the one you think you're asking, and it may not even bother to tell you this7; you have to look at the experiment procedures with a skeptical eye, and imagine what other possibilities might give the same results, then come up with further tests to eliminate (or confirm) those possibilities.
7. resists temptation to make a joke about spending years wandering around trying to find the right way to ask the question because there's no search engine for scientific study designs
8. It would make sense that I would have to "join" DCM's FB page, but I can't even see a link for that. I see three possibilities: (1) I'm being a dufus and everyone else could see right away how to join (or make a comment without joining); (2) the necessary link is right in front of me and I'm just not seeing it; (3) posting is somehow restricted.


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