Every morning at 6am, our army of thousands of personal shoppers across our biggest 300 Tesco stores and 3 "Dotcom-only stores" ('sort of' picking depots) set to work picking the first of tens of thousands of grocery orders on a typical day.
The technology they use - we call it 'teampad' - is a tablet computer running Windows XP Embedded and an application we have written in Microsoft .Net and C# to help the personal shopper pick accurately and quickly. You can often see our personal shoppers in action in Tesco with their distinctive trollies with on-board tablet computer.
The service has worked well this way for years - we've tuned and improved the software in response to our personal shoppers' feedback, but nothing major has happened beyond getting later generation tablets (as old ones reach end-of-life) and better batteries.
However, there has been one issue that staff have kept encountering over the years - and now Dotcom R&D is involved in solving it.
The issue is this: Often, if an aisle is crowded with customers, it is better to leave the picking trolley (and thus teampad) at the end of the aisle and walk down to pick up the products.
The issue is that sometimes you may not pick up the product the teampad asked for! The subtlelty of different product sizes comes into play here and you think you have picked up the product described on the teampad but have not. You've then walked all the way back to the trolley, scanned the barcode and told it was not correct, walked all the way back to the shelf to replace the product, and picked the correct one (hopefully) to try again.
That's a terrible waste of precious time - and our personal shoppers are telling us this. Indeed the argument they use is that it would be more useful if the information was always on them rather than on their trolley.
So we're currently experimenting with a range of portable - some wearable - computer devices to see if this new technology helps. After all, equipment with the sort of computing power we require is now smaller, lighter and with a much longer battery life than before.
I spent part of last week down at one of our stores starting early with a group of picking staff to see what they thought of the new kit and to get them picking with it to see how they got on.
Experiments continue inside R&D and with our experimental picking team and we'll see where this goes. There are no plans to roll out any new equipment until our personal shopper test team say that it fits their work better than existing technology. Even then we'll have a long distance 'race' between old and new technologies to be sure that "new is better".
This is definitely a case of "getting it right" to make tasks simpler for staff rather than using new technology for its own sake.