Monday, 28 March 2011

Next-Generation Picking Computers

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.


  1. I live in France and use Auchan Drive (it's like Tesco's online offering except you drive to a depot and the Auchan staff put your shopping bags in the boot for you). First you pay at an automated booth, where you are given a parking bay to go to and a receipt with a barcode on it. When you park, the Auchan person comes out with your shopping on a trolley, and you show them the bar code. They scan the barcode using a wrist-mounted computer (it makes them look like Buzz Lightyear) and then stick the shopping in your boot. They leave the perishables out for you to accept/reject. It's a great system - does Tesco have any plans for a Tesco Drive Through?

  2. It's currently being trailed at Baldock Extra in Hertfordshire.

  3. Channel Hopper - yes - it's being trialled (not sure of current status)

  4. Great post as usual Nick. What type of device are you testing with? Is it finger trigger based? I did some research in this area but found the keypad a little restrictive, although the similarities with a mobile phone meant that they were easy to get used to.


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