When it comes to scheduling workers, whiteboards and punch clocks are giving way to screens and the cloud.
One of the most challenging aspects of grocery operations is managing the hourly workforce. Perhaps the most daunting task is setting and keeping track of schedules while balancing the store’s needs with that of employees.
This used to be done with paper, pens, bulletin boards, markers, stamps and cards. But like many business functions, it’s now done digitally—which opens up a range of new possibilities in acquiring, sharing and using data.
“Particularly among independent grocers, many are finding that juggling Excel spreadsheets and sticky notes and fielding constant phone calls about the schedule is consuming too much valuable time,” says Colin Clarke, director of sales and marketing for Atlas Business Solutions, which markets ScheduleAnywhere scheduling software. “A cloud-based schedule that all employees can view anytime, anywhere can significantly reduce the amount of time managers spend on scheduling, so they can better direct their time to managing store operations.”
As grocery becomes more competitive, service becomes more important, especially for grocers who want to offer a unique shopping experience. No matter what a store has to offer, if shoppers have to wait too long for it, the experience will be ruined.
“It’s not just about having somebody at the cash register to check you out, or just about ensuring that your Fruity Pebbles are on the shelf,” says Jennifer Johnson, director of retail practice group at Kronos, a provider of comprehensive labor-related software. “It’s all about the experience that you’re going to get while you’re in the store that’s going to make you want to come back for more.”
Scheduling for ‘Little Stores’
Labor scheduling for grocery stores has to be calibrated to a unique degree among retail, for the simple reason that a grocery store has many departments, and the average shopper will usually visit several of them during each trip. In a sense, the bakery, deli, meat and other departments are their own little stores, with their own skill sets and traffic flow patterns.
“In terms of the service departments generally, some groceries refer to it as the walls of their store, where you’ve got the bakery and the deli and the meat departments and so forth,” says Larry Leibach, area product leader for ADP, a leading provider of payroll and other HR software. “Those are the ones you want to make sure are staffed to customer demand. That’s where grocers have grown this solution. They’re not just looking at cashiering anymore; they’re actually going wall to wall with the solution.”
Some grocers have systems generate schedules automatically based on these metrics, but others prefer to do it manually. One of the latter is New Seasons Market, headquartered in Portland, Ore., with 19 stores in Oregon, Washington and Northern California. New Seasons uses the Workforce Central suite from Kronos (which has been superseded by Kronos’ Workforce Dimensions, released in November).
“We have our daily sales broken down hourly—including number of sales per hour and transactions per hour—from our POS that goes directly into our forecasting tool,” says Richard Blandini, senior IT specialist for the retailer. “Those things all get plugged in and it pops up on a dashboard. People can take a look at what planned hours are going to be and … the forecasted amount of business, and see where the differences are between the two.”
Needs and Desires
A good scheduling system must also be able to process not only the store’s needs, but also the employees’ desires. Irregular scheduling, with “shifting shifts,” is one of the biggest complaints of hourly retail workers in grocery and other sectors regarding their jobs. Used properly, scheduling software can help stores conform to employees’ desired work schedules as much as possible.
“Those kinds of tools built within a software solution can certainly improve work-life balance for employees with more predictable schedules,” says Amber Onstot, a client relations specialist with Business Management Systems, maker of Snap Schedule software.
All these variables make scheduling one of the most daunting tasks in the grocery sector. Software can greatly help—if it’s the right kind.
“The scheduling engines need to be quite sophisticated to be able to handle knowing when to place the work, who has the skills to perform the work and the availabilities of the associates,” says Rick Schlenker, co-founder and EVP of sales and marketing at Logile Inc. “And then when it produces a schedule, it has to do a good job load-balancing … the distribution of how the hours are placed, while still meeting all of the business rules and also the employees’ preferences. It’s a lot easier said than done, and many systems will fall apart when you try to get it to do all of those things together.”
The unique nature of departmental work in a grocery store presents one of the major challenges of scheduling software. It’s common for employees to jump between tasks and to qualify for more than one specialized task. This is often required because demand in different departments or areas might surge at different times.
“Cross-training is a really big deal for the retail industry,” says Audrey Hogan, director of human capital management for Truno, which markets TimeForge labor management software. “Most vendors in the human capital management space can only support one department of employees. That’s not how grocery works. Grocery retailers have got cashiers filling in at the deli, or people in the meat department jumping over to help stock when they’re short-staffed.”
The key is to schedule not by the role, the job or the shift, but by the task, says Schlenker. To that end, he says, schedules are based on the task level, “so that people are scheduled across departments and across duties, to make up their eight-hour shifts to leverage that pool of hours.” An individual worker might spend a couple of hours at the bakery counter, then help stock shelves for the next two hours, then put in the next two at the checkout.
To generate schedules that provide labor where it is needed, a system should be able to take in and process data from other sources, both within and outside the store. This is most often point-of-sale data, both overall and within departments. Tracking sales by category, or even by individual items, can greatly help with predicting things like when it will become necessary to restock a certain area. Other store data can be useful in that way as well: “Some grocers might have a digital weigh scale in the meat department so that they know exactly how much meat is weighed, and it’s time-stamped by time and date, so that can be used as historical data,” says Leibach of ADP.
Stores that use computer-generated schedules should be able to evaluate and tweak them regularly to maximize efficiency. Leibach refers to a metric he calls “earned hours”: Simply put, it uses historical data to express how many hours of labor in a given area of the store at a given time were justified by sales in that time and place, and compares it to actual hours worked there during that time.
Schlenker says that Logile can compare three versions of any given store schedule: the one it generated, the one that resulted after changes made by store managers (which often happens), and the one that actually occurred. When sales volume is added, Logile can determine how staffing actually needed to be structured, which can help guide future scheduling.
A good scheduling system should take into account workers’ desires as well as the store’s needs. Unfortunately, these are not always compatible.
“Several of the grocery retailers I’ve talked with mention that the majority of their full-time employees prefer to work that 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. shift during the weekdays, but their highest demand time is from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m., so there’s a mismatch there,” Leibach says.
Many scheduling systems allow input from employees, subject to managerial approval. Employees can post their preferred days, hours and shifts, request time off, and even swap shifts with each other. Some systems, like the scheduling module of the Workforce Dimensions software suite from Kronos, can be set to grant time off requests automatically, unless they create a problem.
“For instance, if I’m an employee and I want to take time off, and the day I want to take off there’s already six other people taking off, the system’s going to tell the manager that they should decline that time-off request,” Johnson says. “But if there’s nobody else taking time off that day, the system’s going to automatically approve that request, so the manager doesn’t have to do it.”
Employee scheduling is one of the most challenging tasks in retail, and even more so for grocery. But modern software, when properly used, can balance the competing factors and create schedules that are as fair as possible for all concerned.