Conflicted on Self Checkout

Whenever I go to a Manhattan Whole Foods on a whim there’s a 50% chance I pivot, turn around and leave. It’s the lines. They make IKEA lines on a Sunday look tame. Apparently everyone thinks to shop at the Union Square and Columbus Circle locations at the exact same time. We’ve all wondered if it’s worth it just for that one item you can’t easily get elsewhere. Of course, it’s a testament to the products they sell and the service they provide that we endure it (they apologized after I complained in a foursquare check-in). 

Sometimes I turn it into a game. The gamble of whether the express or the large basket line will be faster. You’re thrilled when you’re right and you’re frustrated with every passing minute when you’re wrong.

Without giving it much thought I’ve said the solution was self checkout, especially during the lunchtime rush. No-brainer right? Everyone takes their soup and sandwich and pays for it themselves. Except, I’ve used two self checkouts recently with no success whatsoever. The problem? Poor user interface design. In an effort to prevent shrinkage and possibly to confuse zombies from buying food during the Zombieapocalypse, it seems that the modern efforts at self checkout are overly complicated. There are even a few markets removing self-checkout machines altogether. I wonder why? 

I understand wanting to prevent theft, but chances are if someone is going to steal something they aren’t going to swipe their own credit card only to covertly not scan a candy bar. They’ll simply put the candy bar in their pocket and walk out in the first place. 

One problem is the system of weights and measurements used to ensure what you’ve scanned is placed in the bag. It makes no sense to me. If I’ve scanned it, why should it matter where I put it? In the case of a 12 pack of soda, I’m going to carry it by hand or place it on a cart which is guaranteed to screw up that system. As I write this, I’m wondering the actual purpose of this requirement.

In the first of my recent experiences I tried self checkout with a single box of candy to avoid a long line. I don’t know what went wrong. One box, that’s it. I got some kind of error that required assistance. It said for me to wait for someone. I did. No one came. I really wanted that candy so I got back on the line. I wasn’t thrilled.

The second time was during the recent snowstorm. I’m cold, my feet are soaked from the slush, and I’m just trying to grab some essentials to wait out the storm. Magically, there’s some kind of weight issue that requires someone to come over. My patience is pretty limited at that point. You’re talking about someone who is in such a hurry they’d rather just scan it and bag it themselves to get the heck out of there. What happened after is for another blog post…

I guess Whole Foods is right. For now, we can’t even build a self-checkout that is easy to use. Their color coded line system will have to do. Looks like I need to buy more comfortable shoes and wait for the Siri-like voice to say Register, 17.

What Siri Means for Local Search

My dad just got an iPhone 4S as a gift from my family. He’s never been the most tech savvy person in the world. I for one was apprehensive about getting him a touchscreen smartphone given his Kindle is sitting in a drawer and his reliance on print newspapers. He insisted on showing me this thing called “Siri,” unaware that I’m fully familiar with the platform from their pre-Apple days.

He was primarily using Siri to conduct restaurant searches. For him it was easier and much more natural to just speak rather than go to the app store, find a restaurant app, download it, then manually search for a restaurant.

What might amount to the most important (but not the largest) deal in the digital food space happened behind closed doors without fanfare or a press release. That deal is the one between Apple (Siri) and Yelp.

If you used the old standalone Siri app, you would have seen restaurant and other small business results returned from Citysearch, Yelp, Gayot, OpenTable and others all mixed in. It was basically the equivalent of what you might get in a Google search result. Now with Siri in the iPhone 4S, your restaurant results are curated by one reviewer only; Yelp. Plenty of people will download apps, but for people like my father, they have an answer machine that tells them the weather, where to eat, and apparently has an answer to the meaning of life (ask it). Seeing it in action, I could easily see myself using it for simple searches and I used to design restaurant apps for a living! I suspect that local search and weather are the top two search uses for Siri.

What happened to those other restaurant review sources? Who knows. What I do know is that Yelp has taken a huge step in the mobile space. They’ve essentially cut off their competitors before they even had an opportunity to compete in voice search on iPhone. If Siri continues to catch on the way it has, I fully expect Voice Search to be a new competitive search platform. Everyone will want to rank, except this is a party few partners will be invited to in order to make it a better experience. People want answers, not a dozen sources that have answers.

If the restaurant listings start to go deeper than just the Yelp ratings, which is possible in the future, this essentially provides them with a vertical monopoly in voice search on the most ubiquitous device out there. It also ties Apple closely to Yelp in terms of their content strategy. A big player in mobile tying their strategy to a restaurant review platform… why does this sound familiar? Ultimately it was Apple that managed to make the first bold move.

Flipping For Dollars - Google’s New Reader

Yesterday Robert Scoble shared that Google was launching a “Flipboard killer.” Kara Swisher then followed up with more details about the app, named Propeller – not to be confused with the AOL social news site. Considering that Google recently closed a similar web-based project in FastFlip, it’s interesting to see them getting right back on the saddle. Ultimately, if Google News has proven to be a popular destination for them then I can see why they want to get news right on a platform that shines for content consumption. It remains to be seen if this is just a fancy Google Reader (not necessarily a bad thing) or a curated experience.

Flipboard recently released stats showing just how dominant they are in the nascent tablet news aggregation space. I’m a fan of Flipboard, and I got Zagat on board as a launch partner, so I’m somewhat biased. But I see two very different style of tablet apps in this space; the curated experience and the organized RSS reader. I’m not sure which Google will pick to emulate. I hope they pick one and don’t go for a hybrid that does neither well.

I use Flipboard as a serendipitous news app. It’s a leisure app for me that I can use while sitting on the couch. In many ways it’s similar to a magazine because it is curated. Unless you’re managing one of Flipboard’s “channels,” you don’t realize it’s actually powered by a curated Twitter list. You’ll read some comparisons that is curated and Flipboard is not. That’s not the case. With Flipboard you get a better content mix than just a pretty RSS feed.

On the other hand, there’s Pulse. Pulse is the other news aggregator tablet app that I use regularly. The difference here is that Pulse is all about RSS feeds. You populate it with your individual RSS feeds and swipe through to read all of the stories from that one particular site or source. When I’m looking to catch up on specific data and read every headline, particularly in social media and technology, I use Pulse. It doesn’t have the animated style of Flipboard, but it provides just a little more than your average reader to make feeds look organized but appealing.

So what will Propeller be? Will it be a Flipboard style curated magazine app? Or will it be a Pulse style organized version of Google reader?  If it’s like Pulse, then I don’t think it’s a Flipboard killer at all. If people use Flipboard the way I use Flipboard, then I don’t see it taking significant share away from them. If it is ultimately a curated experience, then maybe there’s a real challenger to Flipboard after all.

Analysis of the Deal - Zagat’s Tiger Uppercut

Today’s big news was about Google’s acquisition of Zagat.  A ton of people have asked me to comment because of my former affiliation. A few nice folks think my efforts directly contributed to the acquisition (Wired’s article has some highlights under 21st-century). I appreciate the sentiment. Everything I say here is based on my own personal analysis. It’s really about Google and the restaurant space. I have no knowledge of the deal.

If you want back-story, take a look at Gary Vaynerchuk’s “Thank You Economy” (note: Gary became a partner of my company Consmr well after this was published). In the first chapter he details the evolution of Zagat. He even talks about how Zagat was able to “punch back” against the Yelps of the world thanks largely to the partnerships (Foursquare, Foodspotting) and products (iPhone, iPad, augmented reality) I spearheaded. It’s a good read and I encourage everyone interested in this story to look at his analysis to better understand how we got to today’s acquisition.

It turns out that the Google/Yelp deal falling through allowed two things happen; a brand Yelp was challenging in the restaurant space got a payday, and their rival just added the type of credibility that takes decades to acquire. Don’t cry for Yelp though; their impending IPO is sure to make a lot of folks in San Francisco very happy.

This was all about credibility. I can’t see Google going into the print guide business or the sale of corporate guides. Their efforts with print advertising did not yield the results they wanted. I don’t have to share any stats about the print world. Just look at the closing of Borders. Imagine if The Daily started a print version?

It’s also not about acquiring content either. Google Hotpot yielded 3 million ratings in a matter of months (1/5 of Yelp’s total at the time). If anything, it’s more about how to filter that content moving forward. Why would you choose one review provider over another? Credibility. Imagine if you could have Zagat poring over Google reviews from every city in the US? If you pair the Zagat brand with the strides being made by Google in local, then you add a layer of credibility that Google couldn’t hope to produce on their own. The Google Places window decal instantly acquires meaning. And when Google needs to pitch small businesses on signing up for their products or selling some product in, they’ll have new-found credibility on that front too.

I believe that through Google Maps and Places, eventually Google’s local content would become the standard on Android devices. With Motorola they could ship devices with their Places solution embedded everywhere. Their mobile web enhancements were just the toe in the water. And with Zagat they’ve shown how serious they are about local.

Foursquare on Amex Homepage

I went to the homepage of and this is what I saw. I’m absolutely amazed by this. I think it was pretty cool to have worked on one of Foursquare’s earliest partnerships — but seeing Foursquare’s development since then come so far is astounding. 

Crowd Sourced Security or Who Watches the Watchmen

The New York Times wrote about secure web certificates yesterday and the final paragraph concerned me. Jonathan Nightingale from Mozilla Firefox was quoted as saying the current secure certificate system is “relatively secure”.

Yikes. Imagine if you got on a plane and you saw a crack in the wing and they said “well it’s relatively secure.” You wouldn’t get on that plane.

The article discusses the potential for the general misuse of security certificates because of the protracted business chain (e.g. Microsoft -> Verizon -> Certificate Company) and proliferation of the certificate entities. I wonder if we now need a separate organization to police the entire process? Who Watches the Watchmen?

The last statement from Mozilla is more intriguing though. Apparently e-commerce sites are utilizing a newer type of certificate that provides more advanced security. If an organization were to misuse this certificate, a “user with technical skills” (is that the politically correct term now?) would have to find the misuse.  It’s implied that the user would then have to draw attention to this organization which would lead to the revocation of that organization’s power.

Basically he’s suggesting our line of defense relies on crowd sourced vigilantism. I won’t get into the whole superhero parallel her (okay fine I will), but ultimately if the level of security is so low that we need to rely on a user intrepid enough to follow their secure data down a rabbit hole then we’re not that secure right? Then again, we’ve really been relying on crowd-sourced security for years…

How many times have you seen major bugs and exploits publicized on the web? From hundreds of Windows examples to even most recently on the iPhone and Android, there are exploits that are discovered by users trying to poke holes in security without malicious intent. Some of them have been smart enough to roll up into organizations that specialize in it (a Justice League if you may).  These users and groups don’t get a lot of recognition but I’m realizing that every time I see a story about a major bug or potential malicious exploit, there’s a person who discovered it who decided it was best we all knew.  To these crowd sourced heroes I say thanks for keeping an eye over things.

When does a service plan make sense?

A casualty of July 4th weekend, I’ve been listening to music with one broken headphone earpiece. I swung into Best Buy recently to finally replace them. I buy the same $20 headphones because I lose headphones with some frequency.

At the checkout counter I was offered a service plan if the headphones break.  I thought that was fairly odd. Does one really need a service plan for a $20 pair of headphones? I made one of my patented faces and politely said I’ll pass. Should they even waste time offering it? I understand if you buy $150 Bose headphones, sure. But headphones that are priced just slightly above being disposable?

The amount of effort it would require for me to replace it outweighs the $10 cost savings. I’ll never remember that I had a service plan for these headphones in the instance I break (rather than lose) them. It was hard enough for me to remember to go to buy the headphones. The odds are zero a year from now I would dig through my drawer, find the receipt/service plan, and then head out to buy cheap headphones.

Then I realized, that’s the point.  You’ll remember that service plan when your $800 computer breaks, but you’ll never redeem it on inexpensive headphones.  Someone trying to maximize profits had a good idea…

Still I said no. Final Score: Ryan 1, Best Buy 0