iPod Express Concept Gets Mixed Grade

December 27, 2005

The holiday season is a critical period for any retailer, so it was understandable that Apple attempted to accomodate the crush of iPod buyers at its retail stores by creating a special sales area and wireless check-out capabilities they dub “EasyPay” on their Web site. But now that gift-giving is over, it’s time to ponder just how effective the iPod Express initiative was. Based on personal observations and feedback from other visitors to Apple’s stores, the iPod Express purchase counters were marginally implemented, while the portable check-out devices rated even lower on a useability scale.

The intent of the iPod Express tables and wireless devices was to speed up purchases during the busy holiday season, and it certainly did that with right-there stacks of iPods. But the plan included cordoning off a disproportionately large area of the store for iPod-only sales–an entire display table, the space to its left and right, and the aisle and wall counter behind it. At the same time, despite the poster and 30-inch Cinema Display, some visitors reported walking right by the table, not realizing its purpose. Staffers sometimes had to loudly announce the table’s purpose and limitations (“No cash!”), and asked customers to form a single line for service. And then, those lines often snaked in front of display shelves or across aisles, creating additional visitor congestion in already crowded stores. It was often difficult to tell which line to stand in for service.

The Symbol portable computers proved to be glitchy, although lots of customers weren’t paying with credit cards and didn’t qualify for the devices. Of course, you have to consider they are running Windows CE. Swiping credit or ATM cards sometimes often took several attempts, and re-booting the devices was not uncommon, further slowing the check-out process. The devices automatically log out after about 15 minutes, so staffers frequently had to log back and hope they didn’t stab a typo with the stylus. Staffers also had to take care when entering the customer’s e-mail address for the receipt– one typo and the e-mail would bounce. Stylus input was also a problem if the product’s serial number or UPC didn’t scan in. The network/system often seemed to be running slowly, since it was sometimes 10-15 seconds or longer between operations.

At the same time, at least one store had an unsightly collection of shopping bags underneath the display table, giving the operation a thoroughly unprofessional appearance.

Perhaps the most serious glitch was procedural—using e-mail to generate a receipt for the ordinary customer when checking them out with a portable device, without a signature or other verification procedure (other than asking to see some ID). Several customers reported being surprised at the requirement, and were reluctant to give out their e-mail addresses for fear of receiving unsolicited marketing e-mail or even spam. Hey, who wanted to admit that your e-mail address was “kickass@gmail.com”? In some cases customers requested a printed receipt, slowing down the otherwise prompt check-out, and in other cases the customer’s ISP was blocking mail from Apple so no receipt was ever delivered. [I'll admit true Mac users are more likely to prefer skipping the paper and receiving an e-mail receipt, and probably have a secondary, "disposable" e-mail address.]

Like other stores, Apple’s seasonal employees also contributed to some slowdowns with their unfamiliarity of procedures and mis-types. Apple apparently doesn’t like to order its customers around via signs, so there was no practical way to tell customers which main POS lines were credit card-only (Powerbooks) and which took any type of payment (iMacs).

Of course, customers also contributed to the shopping crunch at Apple stores by asking tech questions at the cash register positions. An enormous influx of brand-new-to-Apple store visitors also helped to increase congestion by asking more than the usual list of questions, tying up staffers who patiently explained the features of each product.

So while the concept was well-intentioned, and the staff worked hard to make it successful, the iPod Express needs some tweaking before its rolled out again.

Update: Peter Burrows at BusinessWeek online has an Apple source who says the company declared the portable computers a success, and stores will continue to use them after the holiday buying season. Read Steve Jobs’ take on e-mail receipts,and Burrows’ original positive evaluation of iPod Express.

Also see: A tipster claims Apple will dump the POS iMacs and rely solely on the Symbol portable computers for customer check-out by fall 2006.

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