Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Hand scanning and Inventory Control

Beep. Beep. Beep. Chir-rup!. I'm standing in the Needlework section, scanning-gun in hand.

"I'm sorry, am I in your way?" Nice, twentysomething brunette, looking at the Home & Garden books behind me.

"Not unless I'm in yours," I smile. You get a kind of ingratiating manner when dealing with common customer questions like these. I don't let it bother me. I didn't tell her, of course, that in a little bit I was going to have to be scanning where she was -- she'd most likely be done by the time I got there, anyway.

She chuckles back at me. "Oh, okay." A pause. Another chir-rup, followed by my putting the offending book on a cart beside me. "So what exactly are you doing, anyway?"

"We have to scan all the books in the store periodically to see if anything goes back to the vendor." Beep.

"Oh. So it's like an inventory thing."

"Pretty much." It's actually exactly like an inventory thing. I continued, "It's about as exciting as it looks." Beep, beep.

"I guess sometimes that's kinda what you're wanting, right?"

A chuckle. "Yeah, like, 'I wonder if I can have some mind numbing boredom at my job today.'"

She laughed, and went back to her hunting in Home & Garden. And I continued scanning every book in the section.

Anyone who works retail long enough eventually runs across the joys of a scanner. They go by different names, depending on the store's lexicon and the manufacturer of the scanner, but "RF Gun" or "hand scanner" are generally the most generic terms I've seen for them. And while the person scanning make look like they're not really doing anything, this scanning process is a big part of what makes the store shoppable, in any retail environment.

Back in the old days at the office supply store, scanning was generally done in two stages: 1.) scan the item for price and 2.) if the price was wrong, take it off and replace it. The way I generally did the job was to take sections of the store and use a single hand scanner, first scanning all the prices and removing the wrong ones, and then going back a few minutes later to scan new labels. After a few sections, I'd go to the back and print up the labels I needed, and put them on the shelf.

(Some places like Wal-Mart make this last bit unnecessary, in that they have portable printers that associates can use to print labels.)

Inventory control at the office supply joint, on the other hand, was handled by a receiving associate, who was given a list of pulls each week -- he or she (well, let's face it, at my store it was always a he, although I met some highly capable female receiving specialists at other stores) would find the listed items, take them off the shelf, and send them back to corporate. This individual would also be responsible for handling discrepancies in on-hand data, i.e. if I discovered that we were listed as having eight Hewlett Packard DeskJet 812C's when we only had five, I'd let him/her know and he/she'd take care of it.

At the bookstore, though, all items come pre-marked with prices, so there's no need to scan for price. (We do, however, have a merchandising specialist who is largely responsible for making sure that all the various "percent-off" or "clearance" stickers are affixed to the right items. This doesn't count salebooks, which will be in another post.) Instead, we receive a list of sections that are to be scanned each week (on average, every shelf in the store is scanned once a month) and the system tells us which books to get rid of and which to keep. This takes two forms: either we are doing "voids", in which case any item that needs to be pulled (the chir-rup above indicates this) is pulled in its entirety, i.e. every copy off the shelf, or we are doing "overstocks", in which we may keep a limited number of copies of a book that we ordered too many of to sell readily.

In either situation, scanning is generally about as exciting as watching paint dry, but it is a pretty essential part of the shopping experience for the customer. It's a glamorous job that gets me all the groupies, but someone's got to do it.

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