In recent years, grocers have been focused on creating the optimal shopping experience for their customers, as they compete to win trips from other retailers. But few have paid the same degree of attention to how they can woo and retain employees — until now.
- Retailers are realizing that they can’t afford to neglect the people who are most important to their supply chains: associates.
- Using new workforce management technology, retailers can better communicate with employees while allowing them to swap schedules or pick up new ones via mobile phone.
- Solutions providers have begun adding artificial intelligence and machine learning capabilities to their platforms to help managers make the best decisions about scheduling.
With the retail unemployment rate sitting at a noticeably low 3.6%, and new competition cropping up in nontraditional places (like Amazon), a growing number of retailers are realizing that they can’t afford to neglect the people who are most important to their supply chains.
Whether filling traditional roles like cashier, or newer positions ranging from barista to stocking orders in “dark stores” to fulfill online orders, the array of labor needs in retailing is more diverse than ever before. At the same time, the labor pool of today represents a new breed of workers who want to be more appreciated, more engaged and given more flexibility.
One tool that’s helping retailers solve these challenges is the latest iteration of workforce management systems. With the new technology that’s available, retailers can better communicate with their employees while allowing them to swap schedules or even pick up new ones to make more money, all in one place — often on a mobile phone. The technology offers a one-two punch by also giving retail management real-time visibility into scheduling and other labor management needs.
Essentially, the country’s leading grocers are realizing that to provide the highest level of customer experience possible, they must have highly trained, highly engaged associates, according to Will Eadie, global VP of sales and alliances at Cincinnati-based WorkJam, who describes his company as a “digital workplace platform” that’s rapidly gaining adoption in the supermarket industry. “We talk to our grocery clients about allowing their employees to have a better digital relationship with them,” he says. “If you do that, your employees feel engaged.
“We’re looking to help the large grocers that are going through a digital HCM (human capital management)/WFM (workforce management) transformation, which they all are,” continues Eadie. “Our WorkJam Digital Workplace brings together different back-office applications into one place. As a retailer, you can no longer ask your front line or managers to have six or seven different apps or have to go to six or seven different intranets to do their job. Our platform allows workers to go in and see their schedules, take surveys, do training and get certified for new roles, all in one collaborative place.”
The platform also enables companies to communicate at scale with their workforces more easily, he notes.
He adds that WorkJam’s clients have typically experienced adoption rates of 100% monthly active users and 67% daily active users, noting that “traditional intranets get, like, 10% and 12%.”
Walmart’s App for That
One example of new workplace technology being put to good use comes from Bentonville, Ark.-based Walmart Inc. Last year, the mega-retailer rolled out an advanced scheduling system, supported by the JDA Workforce Management solution from Scottsdale, Ariz.-based JDA Software. Walmart’s advanced, predictable scheduling system allows its 1.1 million store associates to view schedules, swap shifts and pick up unfilled shifts.
Labor’s Role in Supply Chain Planning
Retailers use supply chain forecasts regularly to plan capacity and foresee bottlenecks. Now some large chains are using this planning data throughout their organizations to support inventory planning and workforce optimization both in distribution centers and in stores, according to Michael Falck, co-founder and president, North America, of Atlanta-based Relex Solutions. “Unified retail planning aligns retailers’ processes for maximum business impact,” he says.
Even minor improvements to workforce planning can deliver significant cost savings, says Falck. “Personnel costs typically account for some 10% to 20% of turnover [sales] in retail,” he notes. “The most labor-intensive activities in stores include operating checkout counters, merchandising and customer service. Retailers can match their available staff to actual workload by combining retail math with accurate forecasting of both customer flow and the flow of incoming goods.”
Falck estimates that retailers leveraging workforce solutions stand to save millions in labor costs by reducing over-staffing.
It also supports the Walmart “core hours” program, in which associates who prefer more predictability have a core hour schedule and work the same weekly shifts for at least 13 weeks, giving those associates a consistent schedule and the ability to plan their lives around work.
To access the system, Walmart’s employees use an app called My Walmart Schedule.
In rolling out the new technology, Rory Graham, senior director of workforce management at Walmart, noted, “Our goal has always been to exceed customers’ expectations when they shop, and having our associates in the right place at the right time is the cornerstone to enabling that seamless experience every time.”
As another advantage of the technology, Walmart managers have reported that the new simplified approach has saved them a ton of time — as many as eight hours per week. This has allowed them more time to spend on the sales floor with their associates and customers.
JDA Software’s VP of retail solutions, Marty Reynolds, says that grocers are using JDA’s latest software for three main purposes: long-range staff planning, forecasting and scheduling based on specific sections of the supermarket, and to engage workers.
“When you consider that 63% of today’s workers feel they could get a job elsewhere for more money, and 47% are actively looking for another job, you have no choice but to look at how you can use technology to engage your workers,” he points out. “So the mobile platform is not only for convenience and to drive that engagement, but managers of today have to be productive and out on the floor coaching employees and interacting with customers.”
Looking to the future, JDA is exploring how artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) can take its technology to the next level, continues Reynolds. “JDA just purchased Blue Yonder, one of the world’s leading AI/ML vendors,” he notes. “With that purchase, we were able to leapfrog our technology. I expect to see continued advances in this area.”
The Benefits of Being Flexible
Amanda Nichols, senior manager for the retail, hospitality and foodservice practice at Lowell, Mass.-based Kronos, says that her company’s latest scheduling product, Workforce Dimensions, permits employees more flexibility while giving management ultimate control. Once an employee has requested a shift change, the system can look at the request to make sure that they’re qualified. “If the retailer wants that decision to flow through the manager, then the system can ask the manager if it’s OK,” she explains.
Room for Improvement
Recent surveys conducted by Cincinnati-based digital workplace platform provider WorkJam reveal that many retailers still lag behind in scheduling practices and employee communications. Likewise, a large number of hourly retail employees feel dissatisfied at work.
- 57% of retail employees still depend on paper schedules posted in break rooms to learn of their work shifts for the week.
- 68% of companies communicate schedules to employees using physical charts.
- 68% of employers say the hardest part of scheduling is assigning shifts that accommodate both their staff’s availability and the company's business needs.
- 35% of retail employees feel disengaged from their work.
- 71% of dissatisfied hourly employees are currently looking for new jobs, citing unstable schedules and difficulties reaching their managers as reasons for leaving.
Being able to view schedules in real time, switch shifts and pick up new shifts are conveniences that are now expected by many employees, according to Nichols. “Whereas previously, flexibility was kind of nice to have, employees today are starting to expect it,” she says.
As for picking up last-minute shifts, she points to “gig” employers such as Uber, which “has the ultimate flexibility — they’ve had same-day pay functionality since 2016,” notes Nichols.
“Some employees are starting to expect that kind of flexibility from other employers. At Kronos, we talk about how the employers we work with can offer shifts for people to pick up at the last minute. That way, employees who need extra money can pick up shifts at the last minute, meeting their needs through their current employer, rather than having to do gig work through a company like Uber.”
Like JDA, Kronos has begun adding artificial intelligence and machine learning capabilities to its platform, which help managers make the best decisions about scheduling, adds Nichols. Kronos’ clients can explore basic descriptive and diagnostic analytics, more advanced predictive analytics, or even prescriptive analytics.
“At the most basic, descriptive analytics show you what happened, diagnostics help you understand why it happened, and predictive analytics predict what might happen,” she explains. “So, for instance, the system could tell you that next Thursday is going to be really, really busy, so you need to make sure you have enough staff on hand.
“Then we have one step after that, which we call prescriptive analytics,” continues Nichols. “This is where the artificial intelligence really comes into play.”
Kronos calls its product AIMEE, which stands for Artificial Intelligence for Managers and Employees. “AIMEE is able to understand and interpret all this data,” notes Nichols, “so she can see that the week before Thanksgiving will be really busy, and she can see all the employees who are available. She can make specific recommendations about staffing in specific departments, even at the front registers to make sure the lines keep moving. Then she can build a schedule for the managers based on all those different data inputs, and the manager can take a look and approve it or make recommendations based on his or her own knowledge and experience in the store.”
While AIMEE is still relatively new to the market, Nichols says that a few of Kronos’ grocery customers are currently implementing the solution. “We’ve got high hopes and expectations of where AIMEE is going to go,” she asserts.
One of Kronos’s customers, family-operated regional chain Roche Bros. Supermarkets, implemented the Kronos Workforce Central suite last year and has reported achieving “strong results” from it. The technology allows the Wellesley, Mass.-based grocer to offer its 4,600 associates time and attendance, scheduling, and self-service applications. The system’s forecasting application gives managers at particular locations access to actionable insights, matching labor volume to anticipated demand. This helps avoid under- or over-staffing situations.
Michael Moriello, payroll and process analyst at Roche Bros., notes: “Kronos has been instrumental in our efforts to increase employee engagement and labor productivity by not only simplifying the scheduling process, but also by empowering our associates with a workforce management solution that appeals to today’s talent. We anticipate this solution will continue to build on our reputation as a customer-focused employer.”