Working it out

Innovative workforce management solutions help grocers maximize staff productivity and bolster customer service.

By Deena M. Amato-McCoy

Labor continues to account for about 40% of supermarket retailers’ operating expenses. Rather than reduce labor resources and risk jeopardizing customer service, grocers are employing innovative workforce management (WFM) systems to boost worker productivity and enhance customer service.

Grocers typically experience their heaviest traffic between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. While retailers do their best to ensure proper staffing levels to meet demand, managing a young, unreliable employee base makes this a difficult task.

Keeping tabs on a youthful workforce also forces retailers to stay abreast of labor laws relating to minors and adhering to specific windows of time that these employees are allowed to work.

This is exacerbated by the fact that the supermarket industry is highly unionized, say industry observers.

“Some grocers have stores in 20-plus states with more than 100 labor agreements and some differ by banner or department,” explains David Andrews, director of marketing communications for Reflexis Systems, based in Dedham, Mass. “As some grocers grew by acquisition, they also gained even more disparate labor agreements among the same category of workers.”

Add to the challenge the industry’s razor-thin margins and “these factors create a perfect storm that grocers struggle to avoid on a daily basis,” says Liz Moughan, leader of the retail and hospitality practice at Kronos, a Chelmsford, Mass.-based provider of workforce management solutions. “Many grocers often fight back by reducing head count or wages, but this only leads to poor customer service and high turnover rates. Retailers that can find a way to create happier, tenured employees will also be able to cultivate happier shoppers.”

Rather than scheduling fewer workers or hiring lower-level employees to contain labor costs, observers say retailers should concentrate on improving productivity. They also say automated workforce management solutions are the first step to accomplishing this task.

WFM systems analyze of all the activities needed to maintain a productive workforce, including an understanding of the company’s goals, employees’ goals, strengths and weaknesses and labor parameters. Then they take results and optimize the workforce to create a schedule that addresses store-level productivity and customer service.

“Grocers need information quickly to better understand how to adjust a process or change it for the future,” says Lisle Holgate, product marketing manager, workforce management platform for Alpharetta, Ga.-based RedPrairie.

Monitoring traffic

Lubbock, Texas-based United Supermarkets is using time and attendance and employee scheduling modules from Kronos to ensure that its stores meet customer service and staffing goals. The grocer previously used a partially automated process to generate employee schedules for a number of departments.

Kronos’ forecasting capabilities allow grocers to delve into each store’s historical trends, traffic patterns and labor standards to derive accurate sales and labor plans. These details prepare United Supermarkets to anticipate the demands that impact its workforce across each store. As a result, it is increasing store productivity by minimizing over- and under-staffing. The scheduling application also helps ensure compliance with labor laws and union rules as well as corporate and store policies.

While having the appropriate labor levels in all departments is critical, optimally manning the front-end to alleviate customer dissatisfaction is a priority for grocers, say observers. Yet, many grocers still have too few lanes open at critical times, making shoppers wait in line and grow frustrated.

“Too many retailers manage by reaction since they are not accommodating based on predictions of shoppers that are arriving at stores,” says Chris Precious, president and CEO of Irisys, an Atlanta-based provider of intelligent infrared products. “Traditional workforce management systems assist grocers in this practice by taking into account historical daily sales and throughput. What it doesn’t account for is the amount of shoppers who were served in a specific time frame and how many others waited.”

Irisys officials say its Queue Management system enhances the results of WFM. Comprised of infrared queue monitoring detectors installed over checkout lanes, the technology monitors and counts the number of people entering and leaving the retail outlet. The company’s Predictive Algorithm software uses this information to calculate how many checkouts will be needed within 15 or 30 minutes to meet that service level.

Triggered by body heat, the detectors monitor people behavior and count the number of customers in the checkout line. This real-time queuing data can be displayed on video dashboard monitors or a mobile PDA device, giving store managers a visual status on current checkout performance, and raising alerts if they are delivering defined minimum service levels.

Called the Irisys Till Scheduler Tool, the solution leverages historical CRM and sales data and information collected by the infrared sensors. Irisys officials say this helps managers anticipate busy or slow periods approximately four to six weeks in advance and ensure appropriate number of workers are available.

Open communications

One way to cap operating costs and still improve operations is to “find ways to get more out of systems that are already in place,” says Kronos’ Moughan. For many supermarket retailers, that includes merging WFM and mobile solutions.

Currently, the retail industry as a whole is not using smartphone-based notifications to change the landscape of WFM. However, grocers know there are plenty of opportunities to embrace mobile platforms to manage their employees on an interactive level.

“The workforce is one of the retailer’s greatest assets, especially since this is their direct line of communication to consumers,” says Moughan. “By finding ways to engage mobile solutions, retailers can improve the employee and consumer experience and even position themselves as an employer of choice in a very competitive marketplace.”

By using Kronos’ Workforce Mobile platform, which is available on BlackBerry, iPhone and Android smartphones and other mobile devices, retailers can extend the value of their scheduling solution. It allows managers to see and respond to potential workforce management issues, while employees can perform time management tasks and submit requests. Two areas where it is sharpening its expertise: identifying turnover and absenteeism.

Filling shifts

It is the nature of the retail business that part-timers call out sick mere hours before their shifts begin. By adding Kronos’ mobile platform to the mix, grocers can quickly compile a list of employees who can fill the shift and send out a text or an automated Interactive Voice Response (IVR) message. By texting  a response or pressing “1” to accept the shift, or “2” to decline an IVR message, “managers and employees can take advantage of real-time information and manage operations directly through their mobile device,” says Moughan.

RedPrairie also helps grocers expand their mobile strategies with its employee self-service platform. The solution enables employees to confirm their work schedules, check hours worked, submit time-off requests, and receive other job-related information with a secure, user-friendly Web portal interface. The solution also allows employees to access work schedules through WAP-enabled mobile devices.

“There is interest and changes in how retailers are looking at mobile,” says Jeff Brownell, RedPrairie’s director of product management. “Concerned with retaining their workforce, retail clients have embraced employee self-service. Retailers see it as a better way to interact with employees, and the concept benefits both the workers and the store.”

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