NRF09: The Retail’s Big Show Wasn’t So Big

NRF 2009

NRF 2009

This was my fourth year attending NRF as a vendor and it was definitely one of the more unusual.   Despite some reports that I’ve seen, traffic on the exhibition was the lightest I’ve ever seen, and from talking to other people there, it’s the least traffic they can remember.  It’s clear that the difficult financial environment has made a real impact at this show.  While most of the regular retailers were there, they either had fewer people, or like one company I know of, canceled at the last moment.

That is not to say that it was a ghost town either.  It was clear which companies were doing relatively well and were looking to extend their lead through technical investments.  There was a good representation of the dollar stores, value priced retailers, etc.  It’s nice to see that someone is doing reasonably well in these difficult times.

The other thing that really resonated was what one of the Motorola folks told me, we are living in a “Do or Die” type of world.  In this retail environment you can make one of two choices, keep “Doing Something” to fight through the difficult times, or try to survive by not doing anything.  Although the second choice may seem prudent at first, it can easily turn in to the death of the company as their competitors continue to make improvement.

Many of the companies we talked to were clearly living this mantra, looking for incremental ways to improve their business, manage their inventory, and overall just do things better.  In our case these efforts are typically focused on mobile applications, providing better inventory management, pricing management, and customer interfacing.

Clearly others are seeing this as an important area to invest as well.  As I walked around the floor there was a continued increase in the number of mobile software vendors and companies providing mobile extensions to their existing products such as allowing mobile access to their POS and back-end systems.  Clearly there is a real movement to deploy more mobile retail applications.

I also saw a lot more hardware vendors providing their solutions.  Of course there were the big players such as Motorola (Symbol), Intermec, and Honeywell (formerly HHP), but there were many smaller vendors pitching low cost and unique form factors.

NRF continues to be the one big must attend retail show of the year and of course we’ll be back again next year.  I just hope next year it returns to the levels of previous years.

Seven Springs Ski Rental System

Seven Springs

Seven Springs Ski Resort

Last Friday I went to Seven Springs for a little bit of skiing.  It has been almost three years since I’ve been able to ski, and I was really looking forward to it.  The conditions were ideal, thirty degrees with packed powdered and the skiing was great.  Although the lift lines were a bit long since they didn’t have the all of the slopes open.

However, the real disappointment was with their new Ski Rental System.  While I enjoy skiing, I have yet to make the investment in owning my own equipment, so I headed down to rent some skiis.  I got there and they had installed a whole new system for tracking the renters, processing the waivers, and tracking the equipment that was being handed out.

Normally, as a techie, I would be in favor of automating this type of process since this is the type of applications we develop.  But clearly whoever implemented this system completely ignored the human element of the system, as well as load testing the system for the requirements of a busy holiday weekend.

In the old system, the renters came in to a set of wide rows that had desks on one side with waiver forms.  The renter filled out the form, handed it to the cashier at the end of the row who created the rental ticket, lift ticket, kept a copy of the waiver, and processed the payment.  As the renter went through the system they got their equipment, and a person at the exit checked the slip, the renters ID, and the ID of the skis that were being rented.  When the equipment was returned it was checked back in to the system.

In the new system, there are now a set of flat panel displays on the counters to the left of the wide rows.  The renters now type there waiver information on these computers, and then go to the cashier at the end of the line to pay for their equipment and lift tickets.  Upon payment they receive a barcode to indicate what they have rented, as well as the lift ticket.  Next the go to get their equipment, where the scanned the barcode on the rental ticket, the boots, and the skiis.  Finally, at the exit they scan the ticket, skiis, and check the users ID.

Overall thhis is not a bad system, except for several problems with the actual implementation of the system.

  • The rows that were previously adequate for the paper forms, were now way too narrow for the people typing their information in to the kiosks, with whole families surrounding the terminal.  It was difficult to look down the row through all of the people to see which computers were available which left them under-utilized.  Then once you were able to find a computer and get through the form, there was no simple way to keep track of where people are in the line, so there is inevitable confusion and line-cutting.
  • Upon arriving at the cashier you order is not actually filled in.  The cashier searches for your last name in the system and then asks for the details of your purchase, perhaps combining multiple users in the system.
  • Next in the system were long lines at the ski equipment stand.  There are often delays here because the staff has to get the type of skiis you would like to rent, find appropriate skis, and configure them for the renter.  However, add to this the computers being extremely slow or down to process the requests, and you end up with people waiting twenty minutes, just to get their skis.  I overheard someone saying the delays were being caused by the anti-virus software.
  • Finally, there is another line to get out of the exit with your skis where they check the equipment in the computer once again.  Again slower than it needed to be.

So I ended up spending about thirty minutes to rent a pair of skis, boots, and poles instead of spending that time on the slopes.  Overall a very slow and frustrating start to an otherwise great day of skiing which makes me really question whether I should just stop at one of the other ski rental places outside of the resort.

Of course it’s easy to complain about these types of problems, and perhaps I was just lucky enough to experience the Seven Springs Ski Rental System at the the wrong time.  Regardless, I feel it is only appropriate to offer some suggestions on how they could improve this system.

  • First, I’d ditch the entich row system that they’ve implemented for the cashiers.  They already have an online system for purchasing lift tickets and equipment rentals so they should just make it available for people at the resort as well.  This would be a relatively simple process of laying out the entry to the ski rental to allow people to just walk up to a computer, lined up on a table or against a wall (like at the library), to do the entire transaction, including payment.  At completion they would receive a printed barcode that would be processed as if I had done it at home at the express line.This eliminates the confusion among the renters in the rows, reduces the work for the cashiers, and simplifies the entire process.
  • Next I would consider eliminating the computers where the skis are picked up.  They renters can still provide the printed barcode, but scanning the information is redundant with the rental exit process.  For those people who may have lost the barcode, provide a kiosk in the rental where they can reprint a ticket using a credit card, or other personal information.
  • At the exit point, I would do the final scan of all of the rental equipment, with the personal ID confirmation.  This would be the only point where it needs to be scanned in.
  • Seven Springs should also look at the barcodes that are being used on the equipment itself.  This equipment must endure the pounding of the snow, ice, rocks, and abuse the skiers dish out.  They need to be more durable than the ones I saw.  Particularly on the boots.
  • Load testing of the system to ensure that it can support peak season.  I don’t knonw if this occurred, but they had obvious performance issues.
  • Finally, perhaps they have already done this, but now that they’ve invested in this system and have barcoded their inventory they should have a handheld system to use for inventory, service tracking, lost equipment recovery, etc.

So at this point my recommendation for fellow skiers is to either use the online system to avoid the hassle with the cashier lines, or rent at one of the locations outside of the resort.