“The Secret Shop at TI4, once we’d gotten through the interminable lineups, was full of wonders and a fantastic experience. We lined up early on the second day of TI4 and ended up waiting about 5 hours before we’d gotten through and acquired our merchandise. The lines were of a similar length up until midway through the third day at which they became somewhat bearable (and if you chose the right moment, like just before the end of a game in the semi-finals on the last day, you could get in and out in less than 5 minutes). Though I think Valve did a pretty good job of creating merchandise and handling the huge crowds of people who wanted to get it (and they are deserving of props for setting up screens for people to watch the games, having order booklets available as you approached the shop, having a space on the side where you could try on different sizing, and handing out umbrellas when it was really sunny or threatening to rain) I did have a few thoughts with regards to potential improvements to the system.

A link to the catalog for the TI4 merchandise for those interested

The biggest bottlenecks in the chain were the entering of the order items off of the order sheets and the receipt of payment and gathering together of orders when you went to pick up your stuff. Now, it’s fairly obvious that those would be the points at which there will be stumbling blocks as the remainder of the process is fairly decentralized and just a matter of setting up lines (booklets are handed out in every swag bag and also available at the door, there is plenty of space for lining up in Key Arena). So, how could Valve have managed the huge influx of people and orders more effectively?

Making the process less painful for those involved would be a question of either expediting the various parts of it, or redistributing the workload to areas outside of peak hours (basically reducing the load on the critical paths).

The process in question was composed of a few main steps.

  • Lining up to enter the Secret Shop (starting with a line up outside the arena in the morning, then a line that stretched from the entrance all way out to wherever people were still lining up).
  • Receiving an order booklet upon entry to the outdoor section of the Secret Shop (so once you actually got to the area where the shop was).
  • Moving through the outdoor line (at which point you could take a quick glance at a screen indicating which items were in/out of stock, next time use an IPS monitor or increase the brightness Valve! As it was quite difficult to read with the light outside shining off of it).
  • Reaching the section where you handed over your order form and it was keyed in (and the associate there confirmed that the items you’d listed were those that you wanted to acquire).
  • After receiving your payment receipt you then moved to line up for the processing station that you were assigned. Wait patiently in line some more.
  • Get called up to the station, hand over your order receipt, wait for them to fetch your order that was put together, and then pay.
  • Walk off ecstatic that you’ve managed to secure some sweet merchandise!

After discussion with my group of friends that I went with (but mostly my lovely girlfriend) I came up with a few ideas.

To make the process faster Valve would be better off if they could eliminate the paper component. The way that they set up the Secret Shop this year was that you got a physical Order Form which you would then fill out with the quantities of the respective items that you would like to obtain. Having a paper form meant that once you’ve puzzled out how exactly you were supposed to fill out the form that that form then had to be transcribed into the digital system to calculate the payment due as well as send the order to be put together at the payment and order fulfillment line. This was one of the major slowdowns in the process because the number of time to input increases variably with the amount of items selected for purchase and some people hadn’t circled the item numbers that they wanted (used to help with spotting them out) or didn’t always print legibly.

A potential solution for this conundrum would be to create an app for Secret Shop customers to download on their phones and plot their order out on before they get in line for the Secret Shop. The app could communicate via NFC with the order entry consoles. With that option in place, Valve could set up a few express lines for people to go in if they have already set up the app and the order on their phones. This would reduce the burden on those entering orders and simplify their task to notifying people when items are out of stock and verifying that the correct choices have been entered. Additional possibilities would be opened if the app had updated in-stock information and allowed for order submission online. However, if that kind of capability was introduced then it would simply make sense to allow people to order online in advance and then come to pick up their orders. Which leads me to my next point, redistributing work load out of peak hours.

If an option were introduced to order (and perhaps even pay) in advance then an express, order pickup line could be created for those who have placed their orders in advance. There are a few things to take into consideration with this approach as it opens up the potential for abuse and fraud but those risks could be mitigated. With an online order and pickup option the experience of waiting five hours in line for the Secret Shop would likely never occur again. Granted, this option would likely put a lot of stress on Valve’s servers and onsite databases but with enough planning and preparation they should be able to weather the workload. With regards to the potential for abuse and fraud, purchases would have to be tied to some sort of permanent ID (like a passport) to prevent people from making excessive purchases aimed at resale (like upwards of $5,000 or something) and to make sure that the person who has come to pick up is in fact the person that ordered (this is doubly important when payment had been made in advance).

The other big advantage of orders being made in advance is that the second major portion of the process, payment receipt and order preparation and distribution, could be done outside of hours when the Secret Shop is open to the public and potentially even done offsite (where space isn’t as much of a concern). With orders being prepared in advance, staff would simply have to verify the identity of the person who has come to pick up an order and then go and pick up the appropriate prepared package. With advance ordering (depending on the amount of time that orders can be placed before the shop opens) demand can also be better estimated and there is even the potential for increased manufacture of particularly popular products.

These are quite big changes that would require a lot of planning and diligent execution but if Valve put even some of these proposed changes into effect they could make the Secret Shop experience much more enjoyable for those involved, make even more money that they did at TI4 and reduce the amount of people missing games being played due to their being stuck in line for the Secret Shop.

Let me know what you guys think, and if anyone knows someone from Valve that they could push this on to I’d be curious to hear what they think (who knows, they may have already thought of all of this!).

That’s all for now. Have a pezant day!

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