At HD, checking out is in focus

Debbyn Milligan began her career at The Home Depot as a cashier 23 years ago in Oceanside, Calif. The front end of the store continues to be a major focus of her attention, but in some very different ways.

Today, Milligan is the VP operations for the world’s largest home improvement retailer. She describes her mission as taking responsibility for the nearly 2,000 U.S. stores from the front end to receiving to the back office. It’s a complex operation, but her team is charged to make it simple, or at least, as simple as possible.

“We want to make sure there is not a large amount of complexity that exists, and we want to make sure that the process is very simple, that anybody could follow it so they can focus all their energy on the customer,” Milligan said.

Coincidentally or not, some of the big advances in this regard are taking place at the checkout. Talking to a reporter on the floor of an Atlanta store, Milligan described a process recently initiated called register accountability. The new process replaced the old system of till assignments, switching out and logging back on when cashiers took a break, for instance.

“Register accountability allows any cashier, any time to jump in at any till,” she said. “That is a huge simplification.”

The company also revamped the interface on its self-checkout lanes, providing more intuitive directions on the screen to guide customers. And it just completed a cashier appreciation event that rallied around First for checkout (The word “First” is built on the first letters of the behaviors: find, inquire, respect, solve and thank.)

But perhaps the most significant front-end initiative is a small handheld device that was designed for use throughout the store: the First Phone. It functions as a walkie-talkie, a phone, a product lookup database and for checkout purposes, a line-busting tool or outright mobile point-of-sale system (for credit or debit card purchases.) 

“We strive for no more than two or three customers per line,” she said. Employees armed with the First Phone can approach customers in line and either make the transaction (if the card reader is attached) or ring up the items and suspend the transaction to make the checkout quicker when it’s time to pay.

In its development stages, the First Phone was called “Project Unicorn.” VP IT Mike Guhl explained: “It’s integrated with everything in the store — that’s the interesting thing. We used to call it Project Unicorn because it was this mythical convergence device integrated with voice system, data system and POS system.”

One measure of its success, he said, is the demand from the user for the device. (Currently, there are about 15 to 20 First Phones per store.) Another is usage in transactions. In the fourth quarter last year, the device was involved in 1 million transactions. That number has grown in each successive quarter, according to a spokesman.

“It’s a customer service solution that also does tasking,” Guhl said. “It can answer customer service questions, and then also allow associates to do their tasking when they’re not with a customer. So I think that was a huge change for us culturally.”

Another initiative that received high praise during the company’s third-quarter earnings conference is a post-checkout process of returns handling. Today, for the first time, it’s centralized.

“We used to handle all of our returns individually in each store,” Milligan said. “We had 2,000 stores possibly doing it 2,000 different ways.” Not only that, the process was tying up 40 man hours a week in a back room. As of mid-December, that all changed with the creation of three facilities that handle the returns with the vendors for all the stores.

Overall, the checkout is a term that is losing its original meaning as the fixed location by the door that includes a cash register, a cashier, a surface for customers to place the merchandise and — sometimes — a line of customers. Thinking differently about throughput is going to continue. And Milligan has a pretty good idea where those new ideas will come from.

“We’re all the time getting feedback from the stores. That’s where a lot of ideas comes from.” 

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