JUST IN TIME. JUST RAN OUT.


The other day, I went to REI to buy some rain pants. There was one salesman upstairs helping a 30ish guy, although the two were mostly chatting about other issues, while nearby the customer’s female companion sat on the floor, looking a little bored. For at least 15 minutes, while I was the only other person up there, I went back and forth into the changing room three separate times to try on pants, replacing them each time on the rack, once standing right next to the clerk.  Not once was I asked if I needed help.  As a matter of fact, I wasn’t even greeted. Neither the selection nor the price appealed to me, and when I remembered that Backcountry Gear was not far away, and I did, after all, have a choice, I decided to leave. I wondered if my age might have been a factor, too.  Hard to say, but I am a grumpy old guy these days, although experiences like this are a cause of grumpiness.  I left REI, drove over to Backcountry Gear, was greeted, waited on by a real person, had three to four rain pants from which to choose, all at a decent price as well. REI’s were double of what I wanted to pay.  I bought something. Yeah, I’m old, but my money’s still good. I now understand what my mother told me years ago how advertisers targeted the young—“your generation”—she said.  They still do, except on the evening news, of course, when they target those few of us old folks who still watch the evening news with ads for laxatives, COPD, DVT and Afib (yep, that’s me) anticoagulants, or chemo.

I don’t shop at Wal-Mart unless it is an absolute emergency.  I did want to get an eclipse shirt when I was in Ontario, Oregon for the eclipse last summer, and Wal-Mart was the only place that had them.  I took pictures of the eclipse; I wish I had taken a few of the display in Wal-Mart, boxes of picked through shirts by the front door.  Still, I get greeted there.  At Safeway, I can’t walk by an employee without his or her asking me if I am finding what I am looking for.  A lot of businesses would do well to station people in critical places who are good at reading body language and aren’t afraid to ask customers “Did you find/Are you finding what you wanted?” look customers in the eye, and discern if the response “yes” really means yes or means “no, but I’m not going to bother anybody.” There is also HappyOrNot, the smiley button survey, like the one posted outside of Sea-Tacs restrooms, where one just pushes a button to grade the experience on a 4 point smiley scale.  It’s quick, easy, non-intrusive, and difficult to game, because businesses usually track the most negative results and the button has a certain lag time between pushes. True, it is not a random sample, and the smilies aren’t exactly defined, but it’s a great survey technique.  Frankly, most surveys would do well by asking simply, “What should we be doing better?” instead of pages of paper or inches of screen asking inanities.  The worst are the ones that force you to answer before you can move on to the next screen.  I then move to the red dot in the upper left corner of my screen and delete the whole thing.  Perfection has its price.

Continuing, REI lost another purchase from me when I couldn’t find a micro-SD card with Washington-Oregon topographical maps on it.  They had Utah, and they had Colorado, but I neither hike there nor plan to.  Most of their Eugene customers probably don’t, either, which is why they had the chip in stock.  I actually did ask a living, breathing being if they had a Washington-Oregon map, but the response was, “No, I guess we don’t,” without telling me whether they could order one from Portland to be there the next day, in which case I might have ordered it.  Instead, I left, and leaning against their outside wall, ordered it online from Amazon.  I want to buy locally, but I’m not going to “bother busy people” in an effort to do so, especially when I can get it delivered quickly, and in this instance $15 cheaper.  At the very least, REI should track what they don’t have, and I could tell them instances of summer hiking gaiters, gloves my size, socks my size, hiking boots, and a Thermarest, none of which they had in stock when I wanted them. When certain items, often containing an “M” on the size, disappear quickly, that should tell someone somewhere that the ordering process needs to change.

It’s not just REI, it was stores during the holiday period that ran out of common sizes of pants, shirts, shoes, and many other articles of clothing.

“Just in time inventory” (JIT) was developed by the Japanese in the 1970s and adopted not only in manufacturing but in sales.  It requires accurate forecasting of demand.  Toyota lost $15 billion in car revenue (70,000 cars) when a supplier of a key part had a fire and production was stopped for two days, because the whole assembly line has to stop until the part is again available.  Dependence upon no failure in the supply chain is a potential flaw in JIT. A quick Google search did not mention the disadvantage that keeping less inventory means it is more likely for the store to be out of stock sooner and lose sales as well as customers, who will go elsewhere where either the inventory is either correctly forecasted or JIT was not adopted.  In my non-statistical experience, which as a statistician is being a bit hypocritical, I agree, JIT inventory is an easy way to save money by not having to store anything and having a smaller “Cost of Inventory” on the balance sheet.  Like so many things nowadays, the customer is a necessary inconvenience, the king (or these days queen, except the latter word has changed meaning) notion long since having been abandoned.

I like my new rain pants.  Now, if it would only rain again.  Maybe next autumn.

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