Sunday, June 17, 2007
e-Government and piles of fruit
"It's not something we do, it's everything we do" is the tag line that greets you as you enter the new Whole Foods Market store in Kensington High Street. Actually, the whole store is festooned with lines, quotes, lists of values and policy statements, proclaiming the virtues of buying local, the wonders of seasonality, the potential for the Soil Association to do good, the opportunity offered by the employment package (which includes "supplemental health benefits" and stock options). After the signs and the sayings the first thing that you notice about the store is the huge amount of space. This is like an Ikea store, without the arrows telling you where to go - and, amazingly, without the sense of being enclosed in a box. On the ground floor there are no aisles, just piles of food, drinks and assorted non-food items placed almost haphazardly around the place. Of course, I doubt there's anything random about it at all - these guys have been in this business for 30 years and I imagine that they have learned everything there is to know about retailing. The fact that the store was packed on a Sunday afternoon says they're doing something right - and, unlike in, say, Harrods, there were no tourists blithely (blindly?) wandering around gawping at the shelves; these were all paying customers. Waitrose and Marks and Spencers must be quaking - indeed I hear that the Waitrose down the road will shortly close for a major refurbishment (rumour has it they've bought fleets of smart cars to take potential customers to another branch). After you've absorbed how much space there is - you notice this because you haven't been whacked in the ankle by a rogue trolley pushed by someone who you're thankful isn't on the roads - you start to realise how much stock they have and what a huge range there is. A dozen different types of tomato (including some impressive looking black ones), ten different types of eggs (including ostrich eggs the size of a kid's head) and more herbs, spices and other condiments than you can possibly imagine what to do with. With range of course, comes choice, and choice is difficult. Take me to a restaurant where there are 101 main courses and I'll take the fillet steak thank you very much; here I watched people happily stuffing half a dozen different types of everything into bags. It reminded me very much of a market in Marrakech. I suppose this stuff all costs more than it does at Tesco but you'd need to be paying close attention to figure that out - some of the prices look very reasonable (how much is a pint of milk anyway?), others - like the more exotic fruits - probably don't have a Tesco equivalent. And, anyway, it's all guilty conscience money - you're paying a premium, you say to yourself, because they put 5% of their profits back into charity, they help sustain the local economy, they buy their food items from Farmer John in Cornwall who would otherwise struggle to survive and so on. Whole Foods have arrived on the scene with a bang. A 3 floor urban organic superstore, stacked to the ceiling with fresh products chosen from a broad range of suppliers although more often UK sourced than not. It feels like they've taken the "front end" of the supermarket and cleaned it up, creating one of those "retail experiences" that people like to go on about. Everything sparkles, everything is fresh (and date stamped - the oldest coffee had a "roasted on" date of the previous day) and the staff are friendly, seem to be informed and, genuinely, seem to be happy to be at work. Still, it's only been a few weeks. At the same time though, you realise they've done more. They've redesigned the shopping baskets - they have wheels and extendable handles(like those bags travellers from the North West of England to London seem to favour) and are deeper than usual; there are 28 tills with one line for all of them, the tills have a screen facing you that shows everything that has been checked in so far (and at what price), the staff pack all of your food for you (and know enough to put the heavy items in a separate bag from the soft items). And then you realise what they must have done at the "back end" to engineer this set up - how they have built sourcing networks, dealt with transport logistics, recruited and trained a huge salesforce and so on. There were glitches of course, but nothing serious from a customer point that I could see: they have a form for "barcode bloopers" i.e. when an error is made with a barcode or when something doesn't register properly - this must be pretty frequent as I saved £10 with items that didn't have proper codes; there's no chip and pin system yet (seems odd given they've been working on the place for over a year). The oddest thing was that the staff are expected, somehow, to know the difference between any of the near-endless varieties of product - this is no Pret A Manager where there are maybe 20 or 30 things to tell apart, this is a place with several dozen products with 20 or 30 sub-varieties; when there are 5 different yellow tomatoes, all priced differently, you're really going to struggle to figure out which is which unless you're a tomatologist. They'll doubtless fix these issues quickly. So why excited about a new supermarket? Well, this is both "new" and "old" all at the same time. Supermarkets have been around longer than IT systems in government, they've changed little beyond the footprint (Tesco Express and all the other derivatives). This one is de novo for London - setting up a retail chain with this scale capability is no small feat (and whilst I imagine it will be hard to find similar-sized sites elsewhere, I have no doubt they'll start to expand - they have, after all, 190-odd stores in the USA already). But it's also just a "supermarket" - it does everything that Sainsbury or Tesco do today, but it does it all with a twist - it somehow feels "better" than the usual shopping experience. I liked the place so much I even had lunch there. So if something like this can be set up by a new (to the UK) retailer and can have this impact, what would happen if you said "well hold on, government's been in the same business for 20 or 30 years (IT-phase rather than pre-IT), we know everything that can and has gone wrong, we understand lots about call centres and transaction systems ... what if we set it up from scratch like this ... what if we did a First Direct, an Egg, a Whole Foods Market?" Surely you could take an existing operation - a benefits service or a tax credits operations centre - and Whole Food it? I guess it's not that simple. As evidenced by the policies and the values on display, they have thought of things from the top down. Doing this for a government operation would require, in many cases, a rethink of policy - the objectives and the outcomes desired - so as to make them simpler, easier to apply and less prone to errors. At the same time, that simplicity would make supporting IT simpler to develop - IT isn't there to solve complex policy requirements, it's there to make sure the money gets to the people who need it and comes from the people who should be paying it. It is though, even if I say so myself, an idea worth thinking about. Just as I wondered what would happen if Pret A Manger took over customer service in government, it is worth wondering what would happen if a completely new, completely unrelated company took over a government operation. If they had the chance to design from scratch with the sole aim of delivering a range of benefits to those who qualified, I bet they wouldn't come up with 61 different, individual benefits. You know, it could probably be done without any consultants ... all the knowledge already sits inside government.
Posted by Alan at Sunday, June 17, 2007