Common Cents & Fried Chicken on July 5, 2019

Not surprisingly, a fair number of people took a vacation day today in order to turn the 4th of July into a 4-day weekend. So, I thought it would be nice to provide lunch for the wealth management associates who didn’t do so. Having done this sort of thing numerous times in the past, I find it best not to take individual orders, and simply order something on which most people can agree.

For instance, had I decided on pizza today, I would have ordered one cheese, one supreme, and one pepperoni. If there had been a baby shower or something along those lines, I would have opted for a tray of something called ‘Friday Pasta’ from a local Mediterranean restaurant. Today? I thought Chick-fil-A sandwiches would be a good idea.

So, at around 8:20 am CDT, I went to chick-fil-a.com, opened up an account, and attempted to order 10 sandwiches and 10 bags of their waffle-cut potato chips. I filled out all the forms correctly, double-checked my credit card information, and placed my order. Unfortunately, I got a message informing me of a 500 code error (?), and something about an internal server not recognizing my request. That was odd, so I rechecked all the data and credit card information, and hit send a second time. Again, I got the error message. Hmm. After the fifth attempt failure, I decided to call the (866) customer service telephone number at the bottom of the webpage.

To be sure, the representative was pleasant enough, but 11 minutes into our 16:45 minute conversation I was no further along than when we started, even though I had told her pretty much everything except my blood type. Then, she asked me if I had tried to use the mobile application instead; it seemed to be a real lightbulb moment. I hadn’t, and was kind of surprised when the app showed the store from which I was attempting to order was showing ‘closed for the holiday.’ Unfortunately, the system wouldn’t let me cancel my order or change my location, or so it would seem. Even more frustrating was the mobile app wasn’t even showing my order at all.

What to do? Well, my customer service representative was apparently at a loss as to why my order was lost in the ether, and explained she was going to transfer me to someone who could answer my technical questions. She then asked: “is there anything else which I can you with today?” I tried not to be as rude as my frustration level was high, but couldn’t help myself: “yeah, I still need to order 10 sandwiches and 10 bags of chips.”

The upshot was I had now spent probably about 25 minutes, in aggregate, attempting to order lunch with absolutely zero success, even negative. Those that know me well are probably laughing at the visual.

So, I decided to call the store, which is located inside a shopping mall across the street and about one-quarter mile from our building, to see if they really were closed. It didn’t compute. Sure enough, another pleasant-sounding woman answered the phone to assure me they were indeed open today, but they wouldn’t open until 10:00. Fair enough, and I told her the app was still indicating their unit was closed for the holiday. She sounded more than a little surprised, and said she would make the change. Sure enough, about 2 minutes later, the app showed the update. Unfortunately, it took about another 3 minutes, or thereabouts, for the system to finally allow my transaction.

Voila. I found the problem and, strangely enough, I kind of indirectly solved it. The system wouldn’t execute my order because it thought the store I wanted to use was closed. Had I not called, the staff might not have known to update the app, which likely would have resulted in fewer sales today. Should I get a hero cookie? Yeah, probably not.

To add some insult to injury, I got an internal email informing me of a company lunch cookout a couple of minutes, literally, after I was finally able to place the order. Even so, the food was delicious and the waffle-cut chips (which I didn’t even know they had) were/are better than the fries. You know, it is a good thing today is the Friday after a Federal holiday, as this was a ridiculous expenditure of time and time which I can’t recover.

Also, this morning, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released the Employment Situation report for June 2019. It was better than expected, as the BLS announced the economy created 224K net new jobs last month. The ‘Street’ had been anticipating a number closer to 160K. In the grand scheme of things, a 64K ‘miss’ is a rounding error in a civilian labor force of roughly 163 million, 0.04%. So, no big whup, right? As Lee Corso might say: “no so fast, my friend.” You see, the strong absolute number, 224K, suggests the economy is NOT as soft as perhaps some people had thought. This now puts future Fed rate cuts in doubt, at least the severity of them. I mean, why get aggressively in cutting the overnight lending target when the economy is creating so many jobs? Great question.

Perhaps money won’t be as cheap as we thought it would be this time this past Wednesday. Shoot, maybe the Fed won’t have to cut rates at all. Perchance we can extend this record long economic expansion a little further. Wouldn’t it be cool if this was the first decade in US history since at least the 19th Century which didn’t have an official recession and/or depression? All we have to do is get past the end of next year, and, quite literally, this expansion will make economic history.

Yeah, I would like that a lot, but that isn’t the point of this newsletter. Here we are close to 1,000 words into it, and I am just now getting around to the business at hand. Give me a few hundred more, and I will leave you to it.

What I found interesting when I juxtaposed my troubles with online/app ordering this morning and the Employment Situation report was: for all the talk about technology putting people out of work, you know, we are still creating a lot of new jobs and, sometimes, technology just isn’t as efficient as we would like. Even more, technology is often useless without human intervention, maddingly so. To be sure, artificial intelligence might eventually eradicate problems like the one I had this morning, but can it completely ‘do away’ with the need for human labor. At least I can’t envision it doing so.

Then there is the old cost/benefit analysis.

You see, the app and/or online ordering is really nothing more than YOU doing the cashier’s job. When you boil it down, that about sums it up. Through the use of technology, you toggle your order into the company’s computer system and you pay for it with your credit card or PayPal, etc. This makes the company cashier effectively a middleman in the transaction, and you just eliminate the middleman when you place the order yourself. The more people use the app or order online, the fewer cashiers the company needs at $10.00/hour, or thereabouts.

Therefore, the question is: how much are you willing to pay to eliminate a few cashier positions? Further, can you successfully reduce these headcounts without desiccating the ‘in-store’ client experience, and I like that verb there? After all, have YOU ever been frustrated waiting for food somewhere only to have someone just walk up and get their order because they used the app ahead of time? Of course, I am picking on fast food establishments here, but I could extend the argument to just about any economic sector.

Without a doubt, I believe increases in technology will make vast numbers of workers redundant, but that does NOT necessarily mean it will always be in a company’s best interest to replace them. After all, replacing workers with technology makes the assumption clients/customers are comfortable using it. What if they aren’t? Do you slash your headcount anyhow? To save a buck in costs even if you stand to lose two in revenue as customers go elsewhere?

Successful firms of the future will use technology to drive increases in revenue while constraining employee related costs. Notice I didn’t say cut employee related costs; I used constrained for a reason. The goal will be to drive top line growth to the point where employee related costs shrink as a percent EVEN IF the latter goes up.

To that end, I would NOT have considered getting Chick-fil-A sandwiches today BUT FOR the fact I could order them from my office (or phone) for future pickup. Basically, I wasn’t going to drive to the mall to wait in line for the things, not a chance. As a result, the company’s use of technology made ME a customer today when I would not have been one otherwise. Employee related costs be darned or something…if you catch my drift. THIS is and will be the efficient use of technology moving forward, not simply and blithely replacing the human workforce. Whew.

With this all said, now that I have had my trial by fire, I know to what to do more efficiently. This means my co-workers stand to get more chicken sandwiches in the future. Oh, what if I have problems again? Well, there are other apps and options available.


Have a great weekend.


John Norris