Sunday, September 16, 2012

Time to Throw the Luddites a Bone for this One?

There is a pending court decision involving Apple that has me pretty fascinated.

I won't pretend to understand the legal intricacies, or even the finer details of the case in question, but the 10,000-foot view is this:

1.  18 year-old kid walks into Apple Store on 5th Avenue in NYC.
2.  Kid uses the super-advanced check-yourself-out system that allows customers to enter the store, buy and pay for merchandise, and leave, all without interacting with an Apple employee.
3.  Store employee chases him down on the street, saying he stole the headphones.
4.  Kid says he did NOT steal headphones; he thought he had used the system properly.
5.  Apple is sticking to its guns, and this thing will be decided by a court.

Here's why this is so interesting:  Several stores that are eager to expand convenience options for consumers, and shave down cost margins anywhere they can, have implemented "self check-out" systems in various capacities.  Most of the ones we've seen at huge retailers or supermarkets involve several registers, all being monitored by one live employee and, of course, eyes in the sky working for Loss Prevention.

The major problem is how we determine who should be responsible when something goes wrong.  Personally, I side with the consumer -- if I haven't been trained on a specific piece of equipment, how can you expect me to use it right?  If "whoops" my thumb was over the UPC as I scanned it, well, silly me I wasn't really sure what I was doing.  If a UPC had been visibly altered, well, silly me, I didn't notice when I took it off the shelf (maybe the LP cameras could offer another point of view, depending on their coverage quality).  If that expensive and bulky item I had on that bottom, flat part of the carriage didn't make it through the scanner, well, sometimes I'm absentminded like that.  Could there be an "acceptable loss" threshold at which that cost is counterbalanced by the labor cost savings and the additional revenue from customers who appreciate the convenience?

I just can't quite see how the kid with the headphones can be proven guilty in this, and I wonder what implications it will have on self check-out systems.

On a slightly separate note, my observational history shows me that people are very good at correcting mistakes that count against them, and not so good in the other direction.  If an employer charged someone 10 vacation days for a 5-day honeymoon to Bermuda, what do you think the chances are that the employee would work with HR to correct the error?  Now ask yourself the same question, with the 10 and the 5 reversed.  What are the chances now?  Who do you think always insists out loud to no one in particular that "it all evens out anyway" -- your friend who is always loaning money out, or the one who is always borrowing?

Believe me, I love people.  If you know me (as in, outside of the online realm), you probably already knew that.  But maybe it's because I love them so much that I know when to expect certain things...and what they might do when they're "not entirely sure" but they "think" that whiz-bang device in the Apple Store was really working.  How much diligence do you think most people would apply to be absolutely certain?

This will be an interesting one to watch.  


C R Krieger said...

I use self-checkout at Hanafords on Rogers Street.  Pretty straight forwards and the system knows when you scan it and don't bag it and bag it without scanning.  Yes, there is the "under the cart" problem, but I wonder how much greater it is than going with a cashier?  Yes, the pilferage rate v cost savings is important.  On the other hand, the store needs to be smart about it.  When I was buying M&Ms for the office the Staples restock level didn't account for pilferage and they were thus losing sales.

I also use the self-checkout at Home Depot and it seems to work fine.

I think I am a little more optimistic about people, but then, deep down inside I believe cynicism is the scientific approach.  I just try to ignore it.

Regards  —  Cliff

kad barma said...

I'm a bit confused. If Apple received payment, the kid could prove it easily from the records from whatever payment method he used. (Credit card, Paypal, etc.) If Apple didn't receive payment, the kid should be able to confirm this easily via the same method--his credit card or paypal statement--and a law-abiding citizen would want to make Apple whole out of fairness for the headphones he's using. But since neither of these two scenarios would seem to require a court case, I can only assume that the kid pocketed the headphones, has no record of ever paying for them, and is now trying to get away with effective shoplifting by claiming he couldn't figure out Apple's system.

I would opt for point-of-sale regulations (like grocery stores are required to put prices on everything) that would require a store to produce a receipt of payment in the store so that all parties can confirm good business before partying ways. (Automated printers, driven by receipt codes from the app, could confirm purchases by spitting out receipts people could grab before they left). Of course, this doesn't help the court case, which brings us back to a kid with headphones he didn't pay for...

The New Englander said...

After seeing Cliff's comment, I realized I should've clarified something...I'm not saying most people would cheat or manipulate a system like fact, the very overwhelming majority would not. The point I wanted to make, though, is that people advocate a little more loudly when a mistake goes against them, as opposed to the other way around. I used the example of HR screwing up someone's leave day allowance, but you could transpose a lot of situations into many times has someone protested, "What, Officer? You clocked me at 71? I was doing AT LEAST 81! Check your equipment!"

I like Kad's idea...if you require a printed receipt, you cut out a lot of ambiguity.

I think systems like this can work, but if I were a store owner, I'd be way more comfortable with it the more I could remove "room for interpretation."

I have no idea if the kid was trying to steal the headphones or not, but I generally feel that if there was even a shred of ambiguity in this (could he have reasonably thought the purchase went through?) then I have to side with him. And I commend Apple for pushing the envelope with SmartPay, but then I think the next step is to improve the system in a way that Kad described (the receipt either prints or it doesn't, period).

kad barma said...

But if the kid legitimately *thought* the transaction went through, he clearly knows by now if it did not. Any judge would prefer that payment to occur and for the case to be dropped. I can only conclude that the kid thinking or not thinking no longer has relevance--there are headphones and no payment, meaning the kid owes Apple money. If not, he could easily prove it. Which brings us back to Apple being a company with which folks ought to prefer not doing business.