Succeeding by failing seems odd but that's how it works

It’s odd to insist that something failing is evidence of someone being successful. But that is how I will read this from Walmart:

Walmart has abandoned mobile scan-and-go shopping at its U.S. stores. Customers failed to embrace the new technology, created to help them save time by bypassing the checkout.

With scan and go, customers scanned their own items while shopping and paid for them with the aid of a phone app or a mobile device provided in the store.

As retailers compete to create a more convenient shopping experience, other novel ideas have emerged, such as Amazon’s cashierless store and in-home parcel delivery — while you’re out.

But not every new concept is winning over consumers, as the experiment with scan and go in the U.S. showed.

As the company itself said on its page which used to be a breathless announcement of how lovely it all was:

Editor’s Note: As of April 2018, we’ve completed the test run of Mobile Express Scan & Go. While the service has ended, we’re always working to bring customers more convenience, and so we’ll use what we’ve learned to improve this and other services in the future.

Yeah, PRSpeak.

And yet this is how companies succeed. It’s also why markets, rather than planning, succeed. We’ve bugger all idea – not a Scoobie – what it is that people really want. Sure, OK, peace, brotherhood and good sex but what actually are those things? In detail?

Further, we have a constantly changing selection of things we can do as technology marches on. The universe of things that are possible continues to expand and this runs directly into the not a scoobie problem. So, what should we do?

Well, obviously, keep trying things out from among that universe and see what sticks. See what people do then we’ll enable them to do more of it.

A close corollary of this, and the rather more important one, is that we stop doing what people don’t do. We note the failures and can them that is. It’s in this sense that markets do better than governments, in the canning. But it’s in the original experimentation that markets do better than planning.

And who is it that has been, historically, very good at this? Why, that’s Walmart. In fact, this sort of fiddling with computerisation was the secret sauce applied by Sam Walton all the way back in the beginning. His innovation was really tying bar scanning tills ever more closely into the warehousing and stock ordering systems.

On this reading of how things work a company that never fails would be a warning sign. It means they’re not exploring the universe of the possible enough to find the next good idea.

Or, as we might put it, markets don’t work because they find the lovely and gorgeous manners of doing things. They find the duds, the horrors, so we all learn not to do them. Rather than planners who find said duds then make them compulsory.

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6 COMMENTS

  1. This is funny. We’re not big Wal Mart shoppers but there is not one near us, but yesterday we were in the country and my wife wanted to stop at one and get something. It was warm and we had the dog in the car, so I popped the hatch so she wouldn’t overheat and waited in the car with her. The missus was back in a jiffy. When I commented that was quick she said they had a scan and go, but I guess it’ll be gone soon enough.

  2. What is gone is grab, scan it with your phone, and walk out of the store. What remains is self-checkout, which still encourages payment by Walmart app (requires it late at night, or go find the single remaining cashier), and crucially, dispenses Walmart shopping bags. Bags, missing from the self-scan experiment, are how the patron-watcher at the door tells shoppers from shoplifters. Walmart is also pushing the model of buy and pay at home, with various pickup/delivery options.

    But Tim is right: Only at a Walmart can a plan be found unsuccessful and discarded. In government, the follow-on plan would have been how to force people to use the system. We turned a corner when the local Passenger Rail gadflies conceded that their revenue estimates would require statewide planning councils to herd people around train stations.

  3. “It’s in this sense that markets do better than governments, in the canning. But it’s in the original experimentation that markets do better than planning.”

    A lot of that is about experience and the pain of losing money (which bureaucrats don’t have).

    I’ve worked in a few retail businesses (both shop and internet) and they’re very good at “fail fast”. Build v1 of the solution in 48 hours that does the fundamental thing people want. Get it live. See if it works for customers by measuring various results of it. If it does, then you spend a few weeks or a few months refining it.

    Something like scan and pay is not a 48 hour thing. It’s a big development. And you have to be serious about stuff like security. But I bet Wal Mart spent as little as they could to get it to market.

  4. “But it’s in the original experimentation that markets do better than planning.”

    What’s interesting these days is how much opposition is growing about the experimenting. The planners would like to put an end to it if they could, because you just don’t know what those damned experimenters might come up with without adequate review and public comment. I suppose that’s not a new phenomenon (Luddites were almost a couple of hundred years ago), but it seems to have abated in the west until the past few years.

  5. TD,

    Indeed. Those damned experimenters developed a mobile money app called M-Pesa which they ignored until it had become so popular that they’d have been lynched if they’d tried to shut it down as the banks demanded. That really disrupted the cosy* financial sector in Kenya and then the rest of Africa.

    *By cosy I mean conspiracy against the people.