Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Scanning in the New Year

The nearest grocery store to me is Shaw’s on Post Road. However, with Shaws closing its doors in January and a recent jaunt down to the East end of Westport, I found myself in the Super Stop & Shop.

As I was walking in the store, I noticed a rack of hand-held scanners by the entrance. An employee was approaching customers telling them about this new scanner that speeds up checkout times.

How it works is that each time you pull an item off the shelf, you scan the product’s barcode with a Motorola hand scanner. It looks like a typical barcode reader, but has a color screen and a few buttons on it.

Each item scanned is displayed on the screen of the hand-held unit, including its price and your total price. If you decide you don’t want the item, there’s a simple way to delete the item.

Before you start your scanning, you put a few paper bags in your shopping cart.

As you go around the store and pick up items, you scan each one and place it into one of the paper bags in your basket. I had my four-year-old son with me and he had a blast scanning everything we put in our basket.

While I did not pick up any produce that’s sold by weight or quantity, the employee told me that there are special – and simple – processes for handling these types of sales that don’t include a barcode on a package.

The scanner even offers store specials. The day I was there, I think coffee and peanut butter were shown on the screen.

I experienced three problems with the scanners:

First, my son wouldn’t let go of the scanner. He liked playing with it.

Second, at times, I almost forgot to scan items that I put in my basket. Luckily, my trip to the store was for just a few items and so it was easy to review what I had in my basket (more on this later); and

Third, the check-out procedure at the self-serve register aisle didn’t work properly. For a variety of reasons, the printed instructions at the register weren’t correct (which I was warned of by the employee who gave me the scanner when I entered the store) and ultimately we had to have one of the store employees help me check out.

I did like the technology and will find that it will help me at the supermarket, especially when there are long lines and/or I’m in a hurry with just a few items.

What challenged me was both the obvious and not-so-obvious problem.

The obvious problem is people intentionally stealing items from the store. It would be pretty easy to put 30 item in your bags, but only scan 25 items. While the store reserves the right to “audit” your shopping cart, the opportunity for stealing is pretty high. However, the self checkout aisles already include this chance for people not paying for things.

The not-so-obvious problem is ensuring that all items put in the cart are scanned. While I was in the store with my four-year-old and a short shopping list, I can imagine that someone with distractions (children, a longer shopping list, talking on one’s phone, or similar), might make a completely honest mistake and not scan one or more items while shopping.

This not-so-obvious problem is also probably due to the new nature of the process, but it exists nonetheless. I’m sure after using the system a few times, I’ll be pretty good at it. The good news is that other than the checkout process, the system worked very well.

I don’t know whether the scanners at Stop & Shop are a trial or are there for good. I liked them and think that I could get used to them. And with Shaws closing in January, I’ll have more chances to use the scanners as Stop & Shop will become my closest supermarket.

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Day the Internet Went Out

The other day, the Internet service in my home went out. It had been v-e-r-y slow for a couple of days, but one day, it became essentially unusable. I couldn’t get to Web sites or email and the phone calls I was making over the Internet were essentially inaudible.

For all intents and purposes, my Internet was out.

Kind of like waking up to a backed up toilet or a school snow day, I knew my plans for the day had just changed.

My initial call to Cablevision (who provides my Internet service) indicated that there was no problem connecting to the cable modem they provide. Their technician was able to determine that 70 – 80% of the Internet packets coming to my home were being lost.

Note that information sent over the Internet, whether it be an email message, a telephone call, or anything else, is broken up in to small “packets” that are re-assembled at the destination. Some loss of packets is normal and the Internet is able to re-send lost or damaged packets so that whatever is received looks identical to what was sent.

While the Internet is pretty good at recovering lost packets, losing upwards of 80% of the packets results in major performance problems.

The Cablevision technician didn’t indicate that there were any outages in Westport or even in my neighborhood that would cause them to dispatch someone immediately. I would have to wait until they could schedule someone to come to my home to investigate. No field technician was available that day, so I’d have to wait until the next day.

I won’t bore you with all of the details of how the issue was resolved … although I will say that we never actually determined the reason or specific item causing problem. What I will say is that the field technician did re-work some of the cable splitters in my home and there was no charge for the visit.

But what did surprise me was how much we have come to depend upon the Internet.

My very first Internet account was primarily to allow me to send and receive emails and view some Web sites. At the time, emails were somewhat few and far between. If I received 3 or 4 in a day, I was quite pleased. We used the phone and faxes for important messages. This was about 1993 or 1994 … ancient history in Internet terms.

On my home Internet connection, I have a number of services that I have come to depend upon. This includes not only computers that serve my wife and children for email and Web surfing, but also two telephone lines – one being my primary office line. When these are not available, this is a major disruption to our everyday business and personal life.

Given the fact that these services were out, how would I manage, especially since the bulk of the work I do is on the phone and on my computer?

I checked to see if any of my neighbors had unsecured WiFi connections. There seemed to be some, but none that easily identifiable as a neighbor with whom I could ask to use for a couple of days and none that would even let me connect anyway. (Be advised that piggybacking on an unknown WiFi network can not only be dangerous, but might also be illegal.)

I could go work at the Westport Library or another location in Westport that has free WiFi, but that didn’t really help me get my work done for a long period of time.

Luckily, I have a wireless Internet card from Sprint that runs off the cellular phone network. It provides me with Internet access whenever I have cell phone coverage. As long as I positioned myself appropriately in my home, I was able to have email and Web service for my personal computer. I wasn’t able to print on my home printers and the computers for the rest of my family were out of luck

So this was a wake-up call for me. Not only did it tell me how dependant I’ve become on the Internet for my personal and business use, but it also proves to me that there’s becoming a need for a backup Internet service in case my primary provider is unavailable. Luckily, I had one available this time. If your personal and business life relies on the Internet, I encourage you to have a backup Internet plan, too.

As a postscript to this, the day my Internet service was restored, one of my neighbors happened to stop by and said that her and another neighbor’s Internet service had been extremely slow the past few days … starting about the same time that mine slowed down.