The folks at The Christian Science Monitor wrote about some head-shakingly bad experiences with on line shopping the other day:
"First up is Kohl's, which is notoriously guilty of slow processing; according to our own staff experiences, it can take a week between a "Thank you for your Kohls.com order" email and the subsequent "Your Kohls.com order is ready to be shipped" message."
" … one of the most frequently-named and disappointing retailers amongst our own readers and staff is Best Buy, as many have complained about the store's processing and shipping policies. Our Editor in Chief checked his numerous past orders and discovered that Best Buy usually takes five days to process an order …"
"… the slowest shippers in the past six months have consistently been Target, Overstock, Dell, and HSN …"
CNN ( and a lot of customers) ripped into Toys R Us for their abysmal on line performance – "Many shoppers claimed that they had placed orders to take advantage of some of Toys R Us' hottest deals, only to find out later that they were canceled because there weren't enough items in stock."
This a bit hard to believe … Best Buy is under siege to compete with on line sources, trying to figure out how to keep people from using their stores as showrooms and buying elsewhere. Seems as though delivering like the on line guys would be a pretty high priority. Same with Toys R Us. Incredibly, Toys R Us explained their Black Friday delivery problem with, "This week is one of the busiest for online shopping across the industry — and Toysrus.com is no exception. The number of questions to our call center increases proportionately with the increased business." No kidding? Black Friday is busy? I guess they never saw that coming.
It seems as though the big box retail world is suffering from a lack of agility problem. I looked it up and did the math and found that a container ship moves at just a shade under the flat out running speed of an elephant – about 24 miles per hour. That elephant style is an apt description of things. The big lumbering load rolls into a big distribution center where it is controlled by a big computer. The priority is size, rather than speed; scale rather than nimbleness.
As impressive as elephants are for their sheer size and power, the fact is that, in a race between a person and a pachyderm, bet on the human. If the course has a few twists and turns, the human will win by an even greater margin. In an increasingly digitally driven supply chain world, the human-centered model beats the elephant model as well, for the same reasons.
Case in point: In Uganda, where computers and Internet connections can be a bit scarce, a company called Afrocyber is cobbling together cell phones, tablets and GPS systems to drive one-piece-at-a-time distribution. A Tanzanian juice company called Azam uses it and …
"Finding out what their customers actually wanted to buy, rather than effectively dictating demand based on the contents of a lorry, meant the company had to overhaul production lines. They have been able to cut the size of their transport fleet, reduce their fuel bill, and sell more juice."
Seems when the big system is not an option a logical solution using cheap, available technology turns out to be even better.
I am intimately familiar with the creative work a tech company called iDatix has done with a personalized garment company called Antigua to enable them to personalize shirts and ship them faster than the elephants can even confirm orders. The key is taking the Antigua value stream map and all of the appropriate manual and visual signals and controls and making them available for everyone to see in near real time – using technology to enhance the human powered process, rather than bending humans to support a big computer based process.
Same approach works at West Paw Design – another company I know well. Place an order for a pet toy with them and, faster than Best Buy or Toys R Us can say "We'll see if we have one in stock" West Paw has the order shipped and, more often than not, has a replacement one halfway through production to fill the kanban your order triggered. Like Antigua, they do it with vale stream mapping, kaizening things to death, cross trained employees to deal with spikes, and an appropriate amount of home-grown information technology to supplement the people driven optimized process.
For the big guys, there is clearly a lot more to competing in an on line world than building a cool web site. The elephantine supply chain model behind the big box store is wholly incapable of driving an online business model. For the smaller guys, the speed and agility that comes from applying minimal, appropriate technology in a creative manner to a human-centric delivery model can be your single biggest competitive advantage – nurture it!