Co-Founder and CEO of Retail Zipline, a company that helps brick-and-mortar stores streamline communication and task management.
Store teams will always have more to do than they have time to do it.
Sophisticated workload calendars, complex gatekeeping processes and all the checks and balances in the world can’t account for unexpected swings in traffic, weather events, shipment delays, employees who suddenly call in sick and all the things that make retail, well, retail.
With Covid-19 tightening purse strings, I’ve found nearly everyone is talking about workload management. Specifically, they seem to be talking about “capacity management,” the idea that you can, and should, optimize your communications and task load based on a store or team’s capacity.
It’s not a bad idea; if you need a project executed in stores and have $1 million in payroll to spend, you don’t want to waste dollars on teams who are so overloaded they’re not going to get to your project by the end of the day. You might want to save those dollars or reallocate them toward other in-store needs, or you might even hold off on assigning that project until teams have more capacity.
But in practice, there are pitfalls. Through my time leading a retail communication and task-management software company, I’ve found what separates efficient, effective store teams from the rest isn’t their ability to optimize schedules. It’s their ability to prioritize.
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Retailers often ask me how to assess workload demands on stores. While technology can tell you which days are task-heavy and which are lighter (thus enabling publishers to determine the best day to send messages), I’ve been wary of encouraging retailers to get too granular with their time tracking.
Here’s why: Managing tasks in this way involves adding a “completion time” to each individual store action. A task to set signage should take 15 minutes to execute, for example. Another task to merchandise an endcap could take two hours.
“OK,” you say, “So why not have the stores report back the ‘actual’ time the task took to complete?” Again, this is a great idea in theory. But now you’re asking your store teams to do a whole heck of a lot of timekeeping. And wasn’t the whole point of this to reduce store workload in the first place?
The more granular you try to get with payroll allocation, the more the exceptions become clear. What happens when a team member is in the middle of a task and a customer needs help? What happens when an employee doesn’t show up for their shift?
These aren’t left-field examples to prove a point. These are real, tangible, frequently occurring things that happen in retail. Retail is a human, messy business, where planning and allocation only get you so far.
A top-down forecast from finance isn’t everything.
There is a pitfall of capacity management: the tendency of headquarter teams to actually undershoot a store team’s capacity in the first place. Hitting your payroll target doesn’t take into account what opportunities were left on the table. If a store had been able to staff one more associate, would it have resulted in another sale? At a corporate level you’re celebrating, but at what cost?
An effective labor allocation strategy will over-capacitate store teams — just a bit — so they get more done in less time. Undershoot, and you’ll be less effective. But it’s not about reducing task load in one area, then investing those payroll dollars in a different way. It’s about investing in the knowledge of your individual store employees.
Store managers make their own decisions about where they’re spending time.
In stores, every sale comes down to quick, in-the-moment decisions: the choice to engage with a customer, the knowledge to suggest the right product, the ability to substitute the right team member for the job. It comes down to speed, agility and knowledge.
Retail team success starts with giving them the proper tools so they can effectively prioritize and plan. But beyond that, teams need context to understand how to effectively prioritize their tasks.
If you have a million things on your to-do list, and only time to do 999,999 of them, how do you know which one can slide with the smallest repercussion? These are the kinds of decisions that retail leaders make on a daily basis.
That’s why it’s so important to bring task management and communication together. This allows you to connect what stores need to know (the “why”) with what stores need to do (the “what”) in a way that gives them guidelines about what’s expected of them. They know how their work supports the larger picture and have the necessary context that enables them to make better decisions in the moment.
Optimizing store schedules will only take you so far. Yes, stores need to be staffed adequately, but it matters less for how many hours or minutes; it matters more that those who are staffed are knowledgeable about the business, well-informed and have the necessary information at hand to run their business in an agile way.
So, is workforce management useless? Of course not. A workforce management system gives you real-time visibility into how tasks are allocated across your organization. It helps you track and optimize store schedules, which, in turn, helps you optimize payroll. Payroll isn’t the end-all-be-all of retail metrics, but it’s not going away. Despite the pitfalls mentioned, retailers are still going to use top-down payroll forecasts as a benchmark for success. It’s one of the few controllable numbers in retail, and people like controllable numbers.
However, workforce management isn’t a solution for store execution on its own. Payroll optimization and capacity management provide a line of sight into workload across a stores’ week or month. It’s useful, directionally, for determining financial forecasts and ensuring teams are staffed for success. Without the proper communications infrastructure in place, store execution will continue to come up short.
Workforce management solutions only address part of the equation. The missing piece — the one that sets truly successful retailers apart from the rest — is good store communication.