A Personal Tale of Data Integration Woe


Our Ann All and Loraine Lawson do a much better job than I can in covering how technology-and particularly rapid to real-time data integration-should be improving the consumer experience, both online and in bricks-and-mortar (do people still say that?) outlets.


What I can do, however, is share a recent personal experience to illustrate how inefficiently many companies-including big, otherwise well-run companies-use technology, even the technology they have in place, to serve me, the all-important consumer.


Long story short: My very accommodating sister was helping me last week with what I assumed would be the mundane chore of running to an outlet of a leading national discount retailer and picking up a table and chairs set I had my eye on. I had my eye on it repeatedly, in fact, because I pretty much live in outlets of said national discount retailer (which is based in Minnesota, by the way), and this particular table and chairs set had been on display for several weeks.


The outlet where we first stopped had the items on display, but as luck would have it, a key component of my planned purchase-namely, the table-was out of stock. These things happen, of course. The helpful -- and let me emphasize here, really, genuinely helpful -- sale associate brandished his very impressive UPC scanner, swiped the isle stock tag, and gave us the lowdown on how many of the items could be found at other outlets in the surrounding area.


Fair deal.


More than two hours and 40 miles of wasted effort followed in chasing down false sightings of Espresso four-piece high-top dining sets in four stockrooms across metropolitan Louisville, Ky.


I learned, painfully, that this massive retailer's standard-issue UPC scanner-despite not having any wires visibly sticking out of it-does not directly update the central database that told four different sales clerks that other outlets did, in fact, have a table waiting for me, my sister and her van. Even more ludicrous, neither do the checkout terminals that scan the same UPC codes and ping the same database (I at least hope this is the case) for price info.


All four clerks were able to tell me that the items I wanted were set to go on "clearance" the following day, and the timing of price changes at local outlets is controlled centrally, even though it's not the same at each location. So, the stock system is sophisticated enough to push price changes to various stores at distinct times based on supply and flow data, but it can't keep track of when a 200-pound box is dollied out the front door.


For that, I learned, this national leading discount retailer relies on a manual count each morning at each of its locations. This info is then pushed to central (where I assume it is validated somehow), where it rests in the database all day as the current state of inventory, waiting for the next morning's count for an update.


Sales clerks, I learned, are admonished to jump back into the 20th century and telephone other locations before sharing stock assumptions with customers. The clerks who receive those calls are encouraged to go back into the storeroom and see that the item is there before telling customers to make a trek on over.


Which makes me wonder why they bother to scan the damn UPC isle tag in the first place.


Mind you, this is a retailer that operates a very impressive online presence, in an era when many other retailers who are in the business of selling 200-pound boxes have public Web sites that tell you in real time whether an item is in stock at your local outlet and even let you order it for pickup.


And, I learned, the UPC scanners do update the local stock count with some credibility in real time-either that, or the clerks weren't as helpful as I thought and simply didn't want to go back into their own stockrooms to confirm what their UPC scanners were telling them. Of course, I hounded them into doing it anyway, and what I got was smiling confirmation that a) the local UPC system is working fine and b) for some dim-bulb reason, the central databaserefreshes once daily, and that's after a manual count.


At this point, I have to admit knowing a little more than the average consumer about the technology available to leading national discount retailers for chores such as tracking their stock. But I can only imagine that any consumer would be left scratching his head about why a business that already tags and collects data about stock flow won't -- or can't -- use that data to serve consumers a little better. I'm going to jump out on a limb and guess that the loading dock and customer checkout systems did not come as a matched set, so the irritating issue of integration affected me, the consumer, directly. And irksomely.


It's enough to make you want to switch affiliations to another leading national discount retailer. And I would, if I weren't addicted to those store-brand salt and vinegar potato chips.


Product quality wins out over service -- this time.