Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Local Knowledge Ignored Again?

Around the beginning of the year, the deli on the ground floor of the complex where I live went out of business.  It was a mom-and-pop operation that just could not make it in the sagging economy against the pressures imposed by the big chains selling the same stuff for less.  I had been willing to pay a bit more for my milk, just as a sign of support;  but the closing of their doors was no great problem.  It just meant that I had to walk a block up the street (that being Van Ness Avenue, it meant uphill, making for an addition to my exercise regimen) to Walgreens to get milk.

This morning I made that trip around 8:30 AM.  I discovered that the milk shelves were almost empty.  While checking out I asked when milk deliveries were made.  I was told that the milk came around 7 AM (before the doors opened);  but the clerk then added that it was only delivered every other day.  In other words, having created increased demand by forcing a small business to give up the ghost, the big business had yet to take measures to deal with the resulting need for increased supply.

Now, it is unclear which big business made this decision.  It could have been Walgreens’ failure to recognize how much milk was being sold, or it could have been Berkeley Farms failure to note that the shelves were getting emptier at delivery time.  Of course the supply shortage could be traced back to a broader milk shortage.  (Perhaps those happy cows of California are not as happy as we think.)  However, my guess is that word of a milk shortage would have made local, if not national, news sources (if not in the mainstream then in the free weeklies that come out on Wednesday mornings).

The more likely hypothesis is that order-and-fulfillment is now managed entirely by machines, working off of databases that, for all we know, have been relegated to some place in that cloud that is the newest fad of information technology management.  Put another way, technology is serving decision making, rather than decision support;  and, because that technology does not accommodate anything as sophisticated as local knowledge, all it knows about are the raw numbers that are collected and fed to the database.  Those numbers may eventually indicate a trend, which, in turn, may be interpreted as a need for increased supply.  On the other hand, they may not.  My own reaction is to do a bit more plan-ahead buying when my wife and I make our weekly run to Safeway, thus eliminating the need to walk the extra block to Walgreens most of the time.

In other words, by driving the mom-and-pop out of business, Walgreens may have gotten what they wanted.  However, by ignoring the local consequences of their action, their decision-making software has yet to take advantage of this newly-created situation.  In other words the machine fumbled the ball;  and, by the time the machine even figures out that the ball was lost, it will be irrecoverable because people can be resourceful enough to figure out what to do in such a situation better than machines can!

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