Magazine Article | October 22, 2012

Retail Workload Planning: Is Your Store Ready For The Customer?

Source: Innovative Retail Technologies

November 2012 Integrated Solutions For Retailers

By Dwight Hill, managing director, The Retail Advisory

An intricate workload planning program can help your labor force fulfill your needs as well as the needs of the customer.

The best laid plans of retailers and their customers can often go awry.

You’re a busy retail executive. You’ve developed a store design that is innovative and stands out in the marketplace. The merchants are flowing merchandise into the stores to drive sales, and the pricing team is working hard to ensure prices are competitive, yet fulfill margin goals. Your sales staff is trained and knowledgeable and the schedules are written to ensure proper coverage. The financial and operational plans at headquarters are culminating in an ideal customer experience that will help ensure your primary goal is achieved — make the sales plan. Sounds like the ideal scenario, right?

The Customer’s Perspective — 3 Retailer Missteps
Now, you’re the customer. You stop by the local office supply store — drawn in by the $0.01 - $1.00 pencils and notebooks on the front page of the weekly circular. An associate greets you and you ask about the items. He looks at you strangely and starts off with the statement “…uh, now what are these?” Not good, and only after he asks two of his colleagues where the merchandise is located (he didn’t even know about the ad!), is he able to find the two empty bins down the middle of an aisle. “I guess we’re out of those,” he states. No pencils and notebooks today. You then decide to look for the antivirus software that is also on sale, according to the circular. It should be easy enough to find by yourself down the “software” aisle. You’re greeted by full shelves of exactly what you are looking for — but wait — none of the items are marked with the sale price. But since the associates have now disappeared, there is no one left to ask; is it on sale or isn’t it?

You decide to move on. You know you can most likely get what you need at the other office supply store across the street. A failed shopping mission.

You now decide to stop at one of the pet supply stores to pick up a toy for your dog. You enter the store but have to navigate a maze of carts full of stock and cartons on the floor, literally having to push them out of the way in the toy aisle, revealing empty peg hooks. Maybe the toys are in the unopened cartons? Who knows? But you’re pressed for time and have to move on. One associate is standing faithfully at the checkout, ready and willing once you’ve made your selection. But they are busy ringing up other customers and no one else is present. Another failure.

Finally, you make your final stop at a large arts and crafts store to pick up some craft paint for a project. You enter the store and approach the paint aisle to find the entire four foot section completely empty. No cartons nearby, no indication that the merchandise has moved — it has just disappeared. What is worse, there is only one visible associate in the entire store — the cashier at the front who has 12 customers patiently waiting in line, and only one register is open. Maybe they bought all the paint? Yet another failed shopping experience.

What I have just described are three actual situations with national retailers that I witnessed recently, during the Back to School season. Unfortunately, these occur every day, and yes, even in your stores, Retail Executive.

Workload Planning — Beyond Task Management
What I have described here are symptoms of a breakdown in execution —most likely as a result of a broken or nonexistent process to plan workload. All retailers must establish a process to schedule and manage nonselling task workload that is pushed from headquarters to stores. Sometimes confused with task management — this is a much more comprehensive process called workload planning. A comprehensive workload planning program contributes to a positive customer experience by ensuring the right level of labor is in place to accomplish the following:

  • Merchandise from the truck is unloaded, put away, and the sales floor replenished as efficiently as possible, with minimal impact to the customer experience.
  • The ad is set, the price changes have been taken and merchandise is marked with the correct prices.
  • The planogram has been reset, the new merchandise is in place, the old moved to the clearance aisle.
  • Service associates are not buried under tasks but are available to assist customers throughout the store.

In other words, the plan is in place to avoid what our customer experienced, on any normal daily shopping trip.

How can the problems that our customer experienced be avoided? Retailers should take heed of the following checklist to establish a workload planning and gate keeping function:

  1. View your operations from the eyes of your customer. We tend to operate in a vacuum at headquarters. Walk your stores at various times to establish a perspective from your customers’ point of view.
  2. Draw out and document the primary nonselling tasks in your stores. For example, what steps do your teams have to take to recover and restock the floor, receive and put away merchandise from the truck, take price changes, reset planograms, or set ads? Are there areas to streamline? Times of day or days of the week when these activities can be completed with minimal customer impact? Can technology be deployed that makes the process more efficient? Draw out the process and standardize across the chain.
  3. Develop labor standards for these tasks. Develop an operations-focused schedule based on established labor standards such as cartons or price changes per labor hour. This will allow you to know immediately the labor impact of the task — before it is released to stores. With labor budgets continually squeezed, this will help ensure you are getting the most value out of your labor force.
  4. Load the tasks and standards into your existing labor budget. You may find times when the work exceeds the available labor hours, which was exactly the source of the problems our customer experienced. With visibility to the tasks, retailers can now get the right level of labor in place at the right time to meet the labor demand. This establishes a clear perspective to see when stores or groups of stores either have existing labor capacity or are overloaded.
  5. Establish “theme days” and establish a gate keeper. For example, organize all price changes to occur on one specific day of the week. I often find retailers who insist from the headquarters perspective that a specific activity, for example clearance price changes, always occur on a specific day of the week. The stores, however, see these clearance price changes much more frequently, and almost daily in the worst case. Why the disconnect? There is no gate keeper to control the activities. Retailers must establish a gate keeper whose sole function is to match all nonselling activities for any given week against the available labor in the stores. Most importantly, this gate keeper must be empowered to say “no” when necessary to avoid overwhelming the stores. This process must have the backing and commitment of all executives to ensure no activities will be sent to stores without the right amount of corresponding labor to get them done.

Remember, view your stores from the eyes of your customer. Doing so will protect your brand and guarantee that you are ready for her when she walks through your door.