Kroger Self Checkout – We Don’t Need No Stinking Usability Testing

uscanbrochure_5_0002.jpgIt was supposed to be a quick in and out at the local Kroger. I usually don’t shop there, but I was looking for an item that two other chains didn’t carry and I thought I would give them a try. The good news is that they had what I wanted. The bad news is that I spent most of my time in the store dealing with their self-checkout registers.

I scanned my item, it registered and I pressed the “Pay” button. The terminal then displayed all the payment options and prompted me to select one. The card reader also has a display and it said “slide your card at any time” which I did. The reader’s display then said “Enter PIN for Debit or press Credit”. I entered my PIN. At that point, it displayed “Waiting on Cashier”.

Huh? I didn’t understand why a cashier was needed not to mention the fact that there was not one to be found. I hit “Cancel” on the register display. At that point, the card reader prompted me once again to slide my card, which I did starting the process again. Once again, it ended with the “Waiting on Cashier” message. I pressed the “Call Cashier” button on the register. A cashier showed up and pointed out that I didn’t select a paytype on the Register.

Not sure whether to blame this on the programmers, the designers, the hardware manufacturer (in this case, Fujitsu) or the usability team (assuming there was one), but clearly, the card reader system should have told the register system that I was using a debit card. It prompted me for it and accepted my pin number. From the user’s perspective, why should I also have to tell the register what pay type I’m using? If that’s not doable (although I don’t see why it wouldn’t be), why couldn’t the card reader instruct me to select a pay type instead of saying”Waiting on Cashier”.  And by the way, there was apparently no notification even sent to said Cashier.

I think self checkout is a great thing for small purchases and it clearly saves companies on labor costs, but when you’re are asking the customer to interface directly with your in-store technology, it’s critical that the process be idiot-proof (not implying that anyone is an idiot). If it’s confusing or frustrating, the customers will stop using it or worse, avoid shopping with you.

Starbucks – The Way I See It – Part 1

starbucks_escher-767149.jpgThere’s been lots of discussion lately about Howard Schultz and how to improve (restore?) the Starbuck’s Experience. Nearly a year after John Moore issued his “What Must Starbucks Do?” manifesto, Becky Carroll and Jay Ehret have started working on their own Starbucks project. Over the next year, they are going to write a series of posts called “Re-Experiencing Starbucks”. They will analyze the current Starbucks experience, make suggestions for improvement, and then compare at the end of the year. Readers are invited to contribute with comments and suggestions.

I told Becky I would provide some input for the project. I must admit that I only started drinking coffee a few years ago, so I don’t have perspective regarding what the Starbucks experience used to be like, but as a regular customer, I can think of a few experience improvements. I plan to submit my first observations later this week. In the meantime, I want to comment on Becky’s second Re-Experiencing post, written last week following an announcement by Starbucks of a couple of new initiatives. You can read Becky’s post here, but the bottom line is that Starbucks is going to be doing two things:

  1. Offering free WiFi (2 hours/day) for registered Starbucks giftcard holders.
  2. Holding a nationwide in-store education and training event for more than 135,000 store partners across the United States. Starbucks will close each of their nearly 7,100 company-operated stores in the U.S. on Tuesday, February 26 at 5:30 p.m., local time, to conduct a nationwide hands-on espresso training experience, designed to energize partners and transform the customer experience. Stores with evening hours will re-open at 8:30 p.m.

A press release announcing the training said:

“Our unprecedented level of commitment to and investment in our people will provide them with the tools and resources they need to exceed the expectations of our customers. We believe that this is a bold demonstration of our commitment to our core and a reaffirmation of our coffee leadership.”

Sorry Howard, but I gotta say that these two initiatives miss the mark. Regarding WiFi, it should be free. Period! Most of your competitors offer it and don’t charge me after two hours. I would gladly park myself at Starbucks when I work from home on Fridays and drink more than one cup of your coffee, but I can’t justify paying for internet access or even registering a card with you when I can go to Panera or any number of locally owned establishments and connect for free; without strings attached.

I like the idea of the second initiative as a jump starter, but Howard, a one time “event” is not the way to “energize partners and transform the customer experience”. Annual turnover for Starbucks partners is about 80%. Within a month of the “event”, 9000 partners will be replaced and there is no mention of any ongoing espresso training for the new people who come into the organization. A “demonstration” sounds great, but where’s your program to ensure that new partners get the same training. And if that turns out to be part of the solution for energizing the team, where’s the program for sustaining that energy over time. I think the first place to start would be finding a way to get that turnover rate down. Way Down! 80% says “we’re not engaged, not committed”. And Howard, giving your partners free internet access at Starbucks locations is not going to move that needle. If you are serious about changing the experience, you need to commit to an ongoing program that transforms and sustains a new, energized culture in the stores.

As I mentioned above, I’ll be writing another post later this week with some other suggestions for Starbucks and I’d love to include your ideas. Let me know what improvements you would suggest to Mr. Schultz.

Can User Generated Content Hurt Your Brand?

Folks in social media circles like to talk about the value using customers as brand ambassadors who advocate for the brand through social media. Of course, armed with a video camera and an internet connection, people don’t need to be asked by brands to be ambassadors. Remember Nick Haley’s iPod Touch ad? The really passionate ones just do it. When it comes out as good as Nick’s did, the brand can’t help but be happy. But what if your passionate customers create something that really doesn’t represent your brand in a helpful way. What if it’s so “cheesy” that it starts getting some serious YouTube traction. Is this kind of free advertising,”good” advertising?

Chris Abraham pointed this one out on his blog today. The person that made this video (and I assume composed the song) is clearly passionate about Hillary Clinton. I wonder if this is the kind of brand ambassador Hillary is looking for.

Is soon as the title of this post hit Twitter, I received a couple of comments suggesting that UGC won’t hurt your brand if you properly supervise it’s creation.  That’s great if you are in-charge, but that’s not what I’m talking about here.  There is no way to supervise or manage this.  You can only respond to it (or not).

So how does user generated content like this affect a brand. Is it helpful? Can it be detrimental? If it happens to you, how will you respond?


My 4X4

4x4.jpgNo, not kind of 4X4! I’m talking about the latest meme that’s making the rounds of the blogosphere. Peter Kim started it, adopted from an e-mail that he received. He tagged Becky Carroll and she tagged me. As Peter explained it on his blog, the original e-mail asked that you describe four things about yourself for each of nine categories. Peter (thankfully) reduced the requirement to four categories, although you can pick from all nine. So here goes….

Four Jobs I’ve Had:

  1. Busboy ==> Waiter: First real job. Family friend owned a restaurant. I worked Saturday’s lunch and prep for dinner.
  2. Pharmacists Assistant: Way back when I thought I wanted to be a Pharmacist. Working for one made me realize that was going to be a bad choice for me.
  3. Professional Musician: I still play professionally on weekends.
  4. Programmer (oldschool – HP3000 – Pascal)

Four Music Artists I’m Listening To Now:

  1. Porcupine Tree
  2. Rob Dickinson
  3. Silversun Pickups
  4. Matthew Good

Four Places I’ve Been:

  1. Kona, Hawaii: Stayed at the Kona Village Resort back in 1996. Steve Jobs was staying in the hut next to me.
  2. Amsterdam, Netherlands: First stop on a European tour for a multi-state choral group that I participated in before my last year of high school.
  3. Barrie, Ontario: visited several times for work.
  4. Bald Head Island, NC: A favorite vacation spot.

Four Places I’d Rather Be Right Now:

  1. Walt Disney World – Won’t have to wait long. Going next month.
  2. New York City – Won’t have to wait long for this either. Have you heard about Blogger Social?
  3. Duck, NC – Another favorite vacation spot.
  4. Home – This is really my first choice. A while back, I asked a consultant friend who travels all over the world what his favorite place was. “Home” he replied. Now that I’m consulting, I understand.

And now for the best part of any meme… Tagging other folks to carry it on. I’d like to hear from Valeria, CK, Kory, Laura.

In addition to the four categories that I used, you can also choose from:

  • People who email me regularly
  • TV shows I DVR
  • People I think will respond
  • Favorite foods
  • Things I look forward to this year

Have Fun!

Are You Lost?


I’m a big fan of ABC’s hit TV show Lost which thankfully returned last week breathing much needed fresh air into an environment stale from the writer’s strike. The second episode for Season 4 airs tonight but for the most passionate fans of Lost, the season started over a month ago. That’s when the marketing machine at ABC kicked the buzz into high gear with the launch of an all new Alternate Reality Game (ARG)

The Lost Experience, first introduced in Season 2, was is an extensive entertainment/viral marketing campaign centered around an ARG. This time around, the game is Find815. The campaign started with a series of billboards advertising the fictional Oceanic Airlines placed in cities around the world. The cities selected were those where the characters from the show come from. Predictably, word of the billboards immediately popped up on fan sites and blogs along with the URL for the Oceanic Airlines website. Visitors to the website discovered that it had been hacked by a new character named Sam who left a video message about his plan to search for his girlfriend who was a flight attendent on the doomed flight 815. The video occasionally flickers displaying another URL ( which is where the rest of the game takes place. was subsequently painted as graffiti on many of the billboards.

Throughout January, new levels of the game were released. Successful completion of each new challenge rewarded the player with new video from Sam revealing new information from his search. The Lost Experience continues even as Season 4 gets underway with more new websites, phone numbers ((818) 460-5520), Lost references in Marvel comics, a partnership between Oceanic and Microsoft to give away XBoxes and probably some other stuff I’m not even aware of. During the season premier of Eli Stone (following last week’s Lost premier) this commercial ran giving the larger TV audience the first teaser about the ARG:

Conventional wisdom around viral marketing falls into two camps:

  • You can make something become viral by targeting influentials
  • You can’t make something viral, but it can become viral if it is really good

Neither guarantees success, but applying both strategies, along with a healthy budget can go along way. Clearly, Lost co-creator JJ Abrams and co-producers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cruse understand both their core audience and viral marketing.  With and a healthy budget from ABC, they are playing the both sides of the viral game.

The product is excellent and innovative, regardless of channel, which sets the stage for real customer engagement . They understand that traditional advertising will not be very effective at attracting new viewers to a complex, continuing story starting it’s fourth season, so they smartly employ their most loyal customers who willingly help to market the show in exchange for an extended experience. These are their “influentials”; their “Advocates”. They understand that these fans are hungry for more of the mystery and will share their experiences broadly through blogs, websites and personal interaction. As a example of how they, as marketers, are engaging with their community, Jon Lachonis, who writes the Lost fan-blog The Tail Section, was given the opportunity to see the first four episodes of the new season prior to the premier and to share his review with the Lost fan community. Not even TV critics were given that opportunity. Needless to say, he wrote about it and the fans went nuts.

Halfway through it’s second season, Lost started to lose some of it’s heat with weekly viewership down roughly 20% from the first season. That downward slide continued halfway through the third season, but last week’s premier, bolstered by 4 hours of catchup shows and the buzz generated by the fan community, saw a viewership equal to the first season average. Whether it can sustain that popularity is uncertain given that the planned 16 episode season will likely be cut to 8 due to the writer’s strike.

So what lessons can you as marketers learn from Lost? Two concepts strike me as obvious:

  • Make the necessary investments to insure that you offer a rich and engaging customer experience with your product or service.
  • Reward your most avid customers with extended experiences. Give them more of what they come to you for. They will tell others about it.

What other lessons can be learned here?