Sears: An SST Queuing System Failure

By Todd Bacile | June 29, 2012

SearsThe economics of customer waiting is important to any service firm. For many consumers there is an economic cost associated with waiting: people value their time and waiting often is perceived as wasted time. Firms realize that waiting presents an initial negative perception of a consumer’s service encounter. Successful service managers attempt to offset the possibility of waiting by forecasting demand and managing capacity. However, nobody is perfect and waiting for service is a fact of life for most consumers.

Firms manage waiting by using queuing systems. Multiple forms of queue systems exist, such as waiting in a single file line at a bank, waiting in your choice of multiple lines at a grocery store, or choosing a number at a deli counter. An alternative queue management system is to use self-service technology (SST). These are often seen as stand alone kiosks that customers use to enter information to complete a transaction.

Really successful companies take waiting a step further and attempt to conceal the wait. The word “conceal” can be associated with a negative connotation, but in this sense I am using “conceal” in a positive way. Firms that conceal a wait do so in a manner that a customer is entertained, involved, or distracted by another activity so as to not notice how long they are waiting. A classic example is Disney’s theme parks: while patrons wait in long lines at the theme park, waiting customers watch animated characters and displays that are strategically positioned around those waiting in lines. In this manner, waiting is not lost time. Customers have something to focus on during their wait.

Sears retail stores uses a queuing system along with a strategy to conceal a wait, branded as Ready in 5 Guaranteed. The system is easy to use and a great idea — if Sears would not have set an initial expectation that it was not able to meet. You see, Sears has a large sign prominently displayed next to its kiosk (and also on its website) stating that 100% of its service encounters are completed within 5 minutes when using the system. A customer enters their purchase information into the kiosk, which then notifies warehouse workers to bring the appliance up front to the customer. Al the while, a large screen TV displays a running timer next to the customer’s name.

Sears has a great idea — and it worked initially. The person I brought with me discussed for a few minutes how wonderful the system is — and we were entertained / distracted from focusing on the wasted time spent waiting. This is a novel way for the customer to see a light at the end of the tunnel. It didn’t quite work out that way, though. Sears stopped the counter just shy of 5 minutes and then re-started a new counter from 0:00. Watch the 1-minute video to view my experience. Sears: you have the right idea, but you need to work on front-line employees correctly executing your strategy.

Todd Bacile is a marketing doctoral candidate and instructor for Electronic Marketing and Services Marketing in the College of Business at Florida State University. Please visit his website for more information regarding his classes and research within e-Marketing and services marketing topics. You can contact him on Twitter @toddbacile

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