This blog entry was originally published on November 9, 2002.

While The Art of Turboing is all about how to complain with extreme prejudice, sometimes the same technique is useful when you have compliments or constructive criticism. Sometimes, it’s even profitable.

Read on to find out what happened when I shared some thoughts with the CEO of BJ’s Wholesale Club.

The background: I shop at BJ’s Wholesale a lot. They’re nearby, and their prices are quite good. Recently they installed self-checkout machines. After using them, I decided to share some feedback with BJ’s, not as a complaint per se, but as constructive criticism. I want them to succeed. Otherwise, I won’t be able to get so many cheap DVDs!

Here’s the letter I sent to Michael Wedge, the President and CEO of BJ’s:


Dear Mr. Wedge,

My family has had a charter membership to BJ’s Wholesale Club since it first came to Connecticut. As a long-time enthusiastic customer, I wanted to give you some feedback about the club. I’m writing directly to you because your web site doesn’t seem to have any way for customers to send feedback to your company.

Overall, I enjoy BJ’s and I think it’s a good value for the money. As with any warehouse club, the shopper needs to be aware of market prices and accept a relatively limited selection. That’s expected, and BJ’s meets or exceeds my expectations there.

The main reason I’m writing is to tell you about my recent experience with your new self-checkout system.

I’ve recently decided to stop shopping at KMart altogether, in large part due to their increasing reliance on self-checkout. While I like the concept of self-checkout, KMart’s implementation seems designed to enrage the customer. Not only have I never completed a “smooth” transaction at KMart’s self-checkout, but KMart seems to have cut back on its human checkout staff. This means that I either have to accept their poor self-checkout, or wait in very long lines for the few remaining cashiers.

On my trip to BJs today, I saw your self-checkout was now in operation. I was glad to see that you still had a reasonable number of human cashiers. There are definitely times that I would want to use a human cashier, even though I’m a technophile.

The user interface is a bit confusing. I noticed that there are large signs next to each self checkout to direct the customer. I majored in cognitive psychology in college, with a concentration on human-computer interaction. One of the design dictums I remember clearly is that systems which need extra instruction manuals are not well designed. The need for a sign shows that the system isn’t obvious to use.

In general, the checkout process went smoothly. You’ve mostly overcome one of the fatal flaws in the KMart design, which is the weight-check system. At KMart, if you fail to put each item into a bag, the system locks up until you can hunt down a human to help you. This makes purchasing large items very difficult. Your system seems to have a better design in this regard… except that it apparently cannot deal with whole chickens. The system refused to accept a two-pack of whole chickens as a valid purchase.

The process for accepting coupons is much better than KMart’s system. Your system had no difficulty accepting my coupons. KMart’s system used a coupon scanner similar to a dollar-bill acceptor, which had great difficulty accepting coupons. However, the receipt printout for the coupons is a bit confusing.

The credit-card acceptance procedure needs some work. There is a period of time where the credit-card swipe terminal appears to have been reset to the “swipe your card” state without any change on the main display. This is confusing, and made me wonder if the credit card transaction had timed out. The display implied that I might need to swipe my card again. I did not, because I know that other similar systems can do a double-debit of an account in such situations. A few seconds later, the system confirmed the credit card transaction.

The final flaw in the system is that the signature pad is awkwardly placed, very small, and the signature pen is attached with an absurdly short cord. This makes the signature procedure something of a hassle.

I also noticed a much longer than usual wait to leave the store, as the door checker was being far more thorough than usual. I hope that wait won’t be a new trend.

My experience with self-checkout systems in general has been that companies make them too paranoid to function effectively. As a result, they wind up angering customers because they make the checkout process longer and more difficult than it has to be. I hope that BJs will refine its self-checkout systems to prevent this syndrome. I also hope that the self-checkouts will be used to supplement human checkers rather than to replace them.

Thanks for your attention.

I sent this off with no expectations other than the hope that it would prove useful to the company… and that they might take some of my suggestions to heart.

I was very pleasantly surprised when I received the following letter today, a few short days after I sent my letter:


Dear Mr. Levandowski,

Thank you for taking the time to give excellent feedback on self-checkout. Your comments have been passed on to the appropriate Operations and Information Systems folks.

Enclosed please find a $50 BJ’s Gift Card for your time.

Mike Wedge
President and CEO

This shows that Mr. Wedge “gets it,” as compared to the many ways that CompUSA did not. The response exceeded my expectations in many ways:

  • The letter was personal, on Mr. Wedge’s stationary, and hand-signed by Mr. Wedge, indicating that he personally took the time to review the letter and draft a response.
  • The gift card showed that not only was the feedback appreciated, but that it had a tangible value to the company.
  • The quick response shows that letters from customers get prompt attention, and prompt replies. That’s a basic part of “customer focused” that most companies fail to understand.


I was already a happy customer of BJ’s Wholesale Club. Mr. Wedge’s excellent response to my letter made me a willing evangelist for the company. An exercise for any corporate bean-counters reading this: Will BJ’s Wholesale Club get $50 worth of word-of-mouth advertising out of this?

Let me be clear: I’m not advocating that everyone go out and start writing letters to companies in hopes of getting gifts. You shouldn’t expect this sort of thing to happen. It’s a wonderful surprise when it does, and I think companies would be well-served in adopting this strategy.

When should you write a letter like this? When you have something constructive to say. You should have a strong opinion that you can express clearly in a brief letter. It should be something that the company ought to be concerned about, but which may not be evident to their focus groups and polling and spot-checks. (If you are fishing for a reward, you’re more likely to get one if the letter is actually useful.)

Something to keep in mind: When a company rolls out a new initiative (like installing self-checkouts), the executives making the decisions may not have all the facts about how consumers like it. It’s the nature of any organization: as comments go from consumers to staff to managers to directors to vice-presidents and so on, they get summarized and prioritized. You may see some little problem that annoys you… and it may be something that would annoy the CEO, too, if it happened to him. If it’s a little problem, though, it might not be in the summaries he gets from management meetings.

Most of all, you should send a helpful letter when you’ve had service that’s just slightly off, and you care about the company. If you’d rather see them fix a glitch than just go elsewhere, it’s worth your time to write a letter. Even if you don’t get a gift out of it, you may still help the company discover the glitch and fix it before it becomes a problem that you, the consumer, won’t live with.

Where to send it? Well, as I stated, I went direct to the CEO because BJ’s didn’t have a customer feedback address. Just as you would escalate with a complaint, escalate constructive criticism: if the company has a feedback address, send it there. If nothing happens… it can’t hurt to send a letter to the CEO. Sometimes you can make a difference for just the cost of a first-class stamp.







The Self-Check Out machines do accept the Gift Cards now. The reason they did not accept them at first was the fact that BJ’s had just introduced the new plastic gift cards (as opposed to old-stlye paper gift cards) a couple months before the Self-Checkouts were put in stores. So the Tech people (where ever they may be) just need a little time to combine the two together.
Now if only they’d get the gift cards to work at the gas pumps. (They are working on this too supposedly) 🙂

-A BJ’s employee (who hates dumb customers, but likes the guy who wrote that letter to Mike Wedge)

Oh ya, btw, it doesn’t suprise me he sent you that Gift Card (although 50 is a suprising amount) the company has been trying to promote them like crazy! They even waived the non-member surcharge for non-members who used a gift card up until the end of Jan ’03

Posted by Rob @ 11/10/2002 12:32 PM ET

A followup:

I went to use the gift card today to buy groceries. (When you’re unemployed, $50 can buy a lot of meat for dinners!)

The self-checkouts cannot accept the gift cards directly. How ironic! There’s a small sticker on the credit-card swipe terminal indicating that, in order to pay by gift card, one must hit the button to get an attendant.

The attendant was on the ball, and quickly came to my aid. (She also saw a problem that the system was having when a plastic bag got stuck in the rollers, confusing the equipment, and came over to override it before I asked for her… very proactive!) I had to hit a button to pay at her central terminal, where she called up the order and processed the gift card.

Overall, it was a good experience… but somehow, I don’t think that Mr. Wedge intended his “thank you” gift to expose a new shortcoming in the self-checkout! 🙂

January 2009 Update:

Since this article was written, BJ’s has made several improvements to their self-checkout systems.  The credit-card acceptance system has been revamped; upgraded systems have a card-swipe terminal with an integrated touchscreen/signature capture display, eliminating the awkward signature capture of the original design.  

The user interface of the entire system has improved with time, as well.

Sadly, other retailers are still repeating mistakes with self-checkout systems.  

Stop & Shop uses a nearly identical self-checkout system.  For years after introduction, the Stop & Shop system would practically lock up for several seconds after you scanned a bottle of soda while it intoned “Sierra Mist 2 Liter, one thirty-nine; deposit, five cents!” in a measured voice. The speech output was synchronous; the system couldn’t process more scans while it was speaking.  You can now scan bottles as quickly as you want, and the speech is interrupted and replaced with the new item’s information.  Also, Stop & Shop installed a much shorter “bagging area” conveyer belt than BJ’s.  It’s very easy to fill this area with scanned merchandise, at which point the system will reject and void out the last item you scanned before telling you that you need to clear the bagging area.  If you’re alone, this slows down checkout as you scan some items, then bag some items, then scan more items…

Home Depot has invested heavily in self-checkout, using machines similar to those at K-Mart. Like K-Mart, they use weight sensors, and they also make many weighing mistakes.  The system frequently fails to recognize lightweight items (like halogen light bulbs, or small hardware items, or a surprisingly vast number of other items sold at Home Depot), requiring operator intervention.  You can’t move anything from the bagging area to your cart without it admonishing you to put it back… unless an operator intervenes.  There’s one operator for 4 checkout machines, and that operator is usually kept hopping!  Worse, most Home Depots with this system have cut back on human staffing of the checkouts, so there’s rarely more than one old-fashioned checkout available. At my local Home Depot, there’s frequently no human checkouts—you have to use the self-checkout. 

At Stop & Shop, my girlfriend and I are usually shopping together, so we use the self-check because it’s usually faster—and we don’t wind up with boneheaded bagging decisions made by the undertrained checkout staff.

As for Home Depot… well, I avoid shopping there now, largely because checkout is such a hassle.  In my opinion, Home Depot’s self-checkout initiative was the best thing that ever happened… for Lowe’s.


Leave a Reply