Will labor scheduling upgrades make Walmart a better retailer?

Photo: Walmart
Aug 05, 2016
George Anderson

As the largest retailer on the planet, Walmart has plenty of critics. The company has long been a target of those who say it doesn’t pay store-level employees well enough. Management has also come under criticism, including from some of those very same workers, for the way it schedules shifts. Now, Walmart is rolling out an upgraded scheduling system that it says will give associates more control over their work hours.

The system, known as Customer First Scheduling, was launched recently at 650 Walmart Neighborhood Markets around the U.S. As the name suggests, Walmart is looking to more accurately match its staffing levels to customer traffic in its stores. The retailer plans to roll the system out to all its stores across the U.S., but has not given a timetable for that to happen.

According to reports, the Customer First system will give associates the ability to lock in their work schedules for up to six months at a time. Most workers are expected to stay on their current schedules and all will get three weeks advance notice of any changes.

Mark Ibbotson, executive vice president of central operations at Walmart, told The Associated Press, “We are cautiously working through the big change. We are pleased with what we have seen so far.”

As with any new system, Walmart’s has also had some bugs.

“Some days it will schedule one person on the entire front end from 7-11 a.m. and other days it just won’t schedule at all until 1 p.m.,” a Walmart worker, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told Reuters.

In recent years the practice of so-called on-call scheduling has come under scrutiny by legislators and state attorney general offices. A number of chains that admitted to practicing on-call scheduling have stopped doing so fearing government intervention and, to some degree, the negative effects it has on employee morale, customer service and public perceptions.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Will a change in Walmart’s labor scheduling system make the company a better retailer and employer? What common challenges and opportunities do you see for retailers related to labor scheduling?

"When revenue per employee is a key performance indicator, all contributions are worthy of consideration."
"The labor market is heating up and workers are gaining leverage. It’s easier to retain a worker than to hire and train a new one. "

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11 Comments on "Will labor scheduling upgrades make Walmart a better retailer?"

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Max Goldberg

The labor market is heating up and workers are gaining leverage. It’s easier to retain a worker than to hire and train a new one. Walmart is bowing to economic reality. Next they need to pay their workers a living wage.

Chris Petersen, PhD.

Happy associates means happier customers.

One key thing I constantly hear from store staff is that they want predictability in their scheduling … along with some flexibility. We often forget that a lot of store staff are students and need to fit schedule with school.

There are obvious benefits of having more staff available to serve customers during times of peak traffic. But if the Customer First scheduling system leads to erratic hours with unpredictable schedules, the store staff have a right to be upset.

Retail is detail. There is no more important detail than taking care of store staff, especially when it comes to scheduling.

Tom Redd

Sure — labor scheduling systems always can help when training is done right and IT keeps systems maintained. I get a kick out of it that so many news publications even care about labor scheduling systems in a retailer. They should write about how more labor scheduling is needed in non-retail businesses.

Remember the productivity studies for business people — How does a business ever get more productivity out of their teams? Mindfulness? Yoga?

Lyle Bunn (Ph.D. Hon)

Because good people are hard to find and staff recruitment, training and motivation is a burden on managing, processes that better enable staff success make business sense.

Products that benefit from associate-assisted selling, (e.g., cell phones, electronics, sports equipment, appliances, etc.) have long been served by digital place-based message displays because it triggers the associate to assist to close the sale, upset and cross-sell. Digital and interactive signage is another staff-enabling technology.

When revenue per employee is a key performance indicator, all contributions are worthy of consideration.

David Livingston
1 year 4 months ago

Max is right about the labor market heating up and Chris is right about happy associates mean happier customers. At Walmart though, I think this is all talk for the press release. Normal logic does not apply at Walmart. I’m not so sure an employee is going to stick around for six months so scheduling out that far won’t mean much. My experience has been that Walmart wants to see employees move on by eight months. They have always dealt with a shortage of employees and will do so in the future. For all employers, including those a step up in class from Walmart, scheduling is difficult. I think it comes down to compensation. When you are making $20 to 25 a hour an employee will be more flexible. When you are only making $10, your life is probably dysfunctional anyway. Unlikely any happy face scheduling scheme at Walmart is going to change that.

Cathy Hotka

This is a welcome development.

On-call scheduling makes it very difficult for parents to participate in the workforce. Walmart’s move to predictable scheduling will mean that more mature associates will be available, and that’s good for everyone. Let’s hope they work out the kinks.

Steve Montgomery

I agree with Chris that happy associates means happier customers. However, sometimes times the two will be in conflict. In that case what will the system do? My bet is that it will choose to make customers happier at the expense of the employees. This is no different than what a manager faces with the same data.

Ryan Mathews

Ask me again in a year. The current system has bugs and all labor scheduling has a common problem — customer traffic is never even measured on a daily, weekly or monthly basis, so letting employees set their schedules is no guarantee that you’ll ever have the right number of workers on the floor at any given time. That’s why, if we remember, we got to on-call scheduling in the first place. Is it realistic to assume Walmart will stick with a system that upsets shoppers in order to make employees happier? I think not. Is it realistic to assume it will stick with the system if sales begin to drop? Again, I doubt it. Does scheduling alone address Walmart’s central labor issue — paying associates a living wage and adequate benefits? Not sure I see how. Again, I’m willing to give the new system a year and see how it works in practice and over time, but I’m not holding my breath that it will end Walmart’s labor woes.

Ed Rosenbaum

I have spoken out several times about the perception of Walmart employees being under trained and less than happy. That does not make me any smarter than anyone else going into a Walmart store and having to interface with an employee. Will this make a difference? Possibly. For sure it can’t hurt. But until Walmart (and Target) finally realize they need to train the employee on how to have a positive interaction with a customer at all times, nothing is going to change.

Mel Kleiman

What ever is scarce has value. In today’s world one of the scarcest things we have is time. The more that can be done to make workers feel like they have more control over their time the greater the benefit.

This is definitely a step in the right direction for Walmart. This should pay major dividends in reduced turnover and higher productivity.

Craig Sundstrom

It’s hard to imagine a system called “Customer First” will somehow benefit employees; and what kind of system, one wonders, do they use now that something (seemingly) so basic as this is considered noteworthy?

Ultimately a company can’t satisfy every need, so perhaps it’s better to applaud Walmart for trying to be a better retailer, rather than pretend it’s trying to be a better employer.

"When revenue per employee is a key performance indicator, all contributions are worthy of consideration."
"The labor market is heating up and workers are gaining leverage. It’s easier to retain a worker than to hire and train a new one. "

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