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Peter Cochrane's Uncommon Sense: Shopping Protocol
There are better ways to shop...
How much time do we waste standing in queues, often at shops? Peter Cochrane has time saving tactics for both retailers and shoppers - even if the latter now just tend to stare at him, puzzled...

My wife and daughters will tell you that I really don't like shopping. A typical man, they say, as after about the first hour I start to scan for the first reasonable coffee shop I can find. Of course, there are far too few technology stores in which I can easily lose an hour, and the prospect of a clothing-only focus tends to clinch the day.

It isn't the dread of spending money, you understand. It is the sheer time expended and the Dickensian processes involved that seem to get to me. I am definitely a hunter and not a gatherer.

Every time I go into a modern store and search for the goods I need, make a decision and get to the point of a sale, they ask me the same long string of questions they asked on my previous visits: Name... address... telephone number... postal code... Would you like an extended warranty? Basically predictable stuff. With my name this tends to be a protracted process: "Is that C-o-c-r? C-o-c-k? Oh, C-o-c-h-r-a-n? Aha, with an 'e'?"

After far too many of these encounters, I have taken to asking the individual sales people for control of the keyboard and screen. It usually evokes a complete look of surprise on their part but it has the effect of significantly reducing my frustration level and wastes a lot less time for everyone. It seems extraordinary that anyone would design a system that extracts the information in my brain by speech to someone else through their ears and then to the keyboard down their arms and fingers, when I am perfectly capable of typing the information myself.

Even worse, why can't they just get all of the information off my credit card, loyalty card, mobile phone or some other device? After all, on a PC users don't keep filling forms in. They do it once and then get the machine to do it thereafter.

It might seem trivial but just watch the amount of time wasted at cash registers when buying something reasonably insignificant. Most machines are now linked to inventory and logistics control systems in order to streamline back end processes but at the expense of the front end - you and me.

On many occasions the customer and staff time wasted is worth far more than the item purchased and makes a hidden contribution to the recognised 47 per cent of the global GDP made up of transaction costs. It may be cost effective for a store to make us stand in line and wait for the attentions of an overloaded sales person, with a poorly designed electronic point of sale protocol - but when you are in a hurry, it sure is frustrating.

It has been established that our purchases are modulated by the length of the check out queue when we first enter a store. Long lines mean we buy less. Short lines mean we buy more. In both cases the amounts can span 5 - 15 per cent, which for a store can, in the worst case, be translated into a 10 - 30 per cent loss.

I for one will not join a queue or line of more than two or three people, especially if there is a problem about to extend the experience. The takings of any store are now limited by the check out response time. Roll on the day when the bar codes are replaced by RFID tags and we the customer can take control of the check out process - and become masters of our own shopping destiny!

We could all benefit from a customer interface at every point of sale that affords us control, where we enter all the data and make all the decisions. My name, address, post code, date of birth, bank details and preferences regarding extended warranty - and anything else related to the purchase of goods - has remained static for years and unlikely to be updated in any significant way in the near future. As Spike Milligan wryly observed - you can't update your date of birth.

Wouldn't it be nice if stores, gas and railway stations developed memories so we are recognised as we enter, our information is available at the point of sale and the financial transaction becomes a minor part of the purchase process, as apposed to a major trauma at the end of a long day. If only I could enter hotel, airports and restaurants to be recognised and have my data be available. I would like to stop carrying a passport, driving licence, medical records and other data in paper or plastic form. They can be easily integrated onto a single device. But most of all I would like to stop answering the same string of questions each time I encounter a cash register or service desk.

Just give me a keyboard and a screen and I will type in all the relevant data for my commercial and leisure life once and I will keep it updated. After all, it is in my interest to have it correct and it is in my interest to present the right credentials. Just imagine how many data entry mistakes are made through verbal misunderstandings and how much human time is wasted as a result.

This is one aspect that I like about online shopping. Open an account and thereafter you are set. I recently found myself migrating to a new and more productive protocol. Visit the physical store to check out the goods and then return home to purchase online.

Today is a Saturday, which means more frantic shopping. My wife is deep into the experience. I had wanted to make a few purchases in this store but the line is long, so it can wait. Besides, the coffee smells great. I have my laptop with me, so I've booted it up and made my in-store purchase online instead.

Written on a crowded Saturday morning in the UK, with odd looks from other shoppers, as I type, sip coffee, consume a fruit scone and link to the net using my GSM mobile. Final draft despatched from the same restaurant over a second coffee via my GSM mobile. And here comes my wife - my shopping will arrive later!