Succeeding by failing seems odd but that's how it works

It’s odd to insist that something failing is evidence of someone being successful. But that is how I will read this from Walmart:

Walmart has abandoned mobile scan-and-go shopping at its U.S. stores. Customers failed to embrace the new technology, created to help them save time by bypassing the checkout.

With scan and go, customers scanned their own items while shopping and paid for them with the aid of a phone app or a mobile device provided in the store.

As retailers compete to create a more convenient shopping experience, other novel ideas have emerged, such as Amazon’s cashierless store and in-home parcel delivery — while you’re out.

But not every new concept is winning over consumers, as the experiment with scan and go in the U.S. showed.

As the company itself said on its page which used to be a breathless announcement of how lovely it all was:

Editor’s Note: As of April 2018, we’ve completed the test run of Mobile Express Scan & Go. While the service has ended, we’re always working to bring customers more convenience, and so we’ll use what we’ve learned to improve this and other services in the future.

Yeah, PRSpeak.

And yet this is how companies succeed. It’s also why markets, rather than planning, succeed. We’ve bugger all idea – not a Scoobie – what it is that people really want. Sure, OK, peace, brotherhood and good sex but what actually are those things? In detail?

Further, we have a constantly changing selection of things we can do as technology marches on. The universe of things that are possible continues to expand and this runs directly into the not a scoobie problem. So, what should we do?

Well, obviously, keep trying things out from among that universe and see what sticks. See what people do then we’ll enable them to do more of it.

A close corollary of this, and the rather more important one, is that we stop doing what people don’t do. We note the failures and can them that is. It’s in this sense that markets do better than governments, in the canning. But it’s in the original experimentation that markets do better than planning.

And who is it that has been, historically, very good at this? Why, that’s Walmart. In fact, this sort of fiddling with computerisation was the secret sauce applied by Sam Walton all the way back in the beginning. His innovation was really tying bar scanning tills ever more closely into the warehousing and stock ordering systems.

On this reading of how things work a company that never fails would be a warning sign. It means they’re not exploring the universe of the possible enough to find the next good idea.

Or, as we might put it, markets don’t work because they find the lovely and gorgeous manners of doing things. They find the duds, the horrors, so we all learn not to do them. Rather than planners who find said duds then make them compulsory.