Retailers whose automated labor scheduling programs have paid off richly at the front end are now eyeing other store departments to reap similar dividends -- and then some.
Reduced labor costs, schedule preparation time and a better match of staffing to customer needs are the most frequently cited benefits when it comes to computerized scheduling of cashiers and baggers. Introducing labor management programs to other departments can open the door to a wider range of efficiency initiatives for the bold of spirit.
However, it also can open a can of worms for the faint of heart.
Expanding labor scheduling systems beyond the front end into other store departments challenges retailers to confront
a wide range of operational practices and examine just how tasks are being carried out.
"That's what labor scheduling is all about. It's analyzing what work there is to do in a department, when it should be done and how much time it takes to do it right," said Howard Vork, manager of labor planning at Supervalu, Minneapolis.
"That type of labor analysis will lead to better work methods," he added.
Unlike the front end, where staffing needs are directly linked to sales, item and customer count data collected at the point of sale, automating the scheduling tasks in other departments requires a keen understanding of process and controls over other less-easily defined variables. The lag of time that passes from when a worker slices ham in the deli department and when that sale is documented at the front end makes it difficult to automate scheduling through a POS-based system.
To tackle storewide automated labor management, retailers have to analyze a vast array of operational procedures and develop labor standards, a complex and often arduous task.
Supervalu, Hannaford Bros., Scarborough, Maine, and Jitney Jungle Stores of America, Jackson, Miss., are among a growing number of chains now developing labor standards, a necessary first step before taking automated labor scheduling beyond the front end.
Vork told SN that Supervalu is currently introducing computerized labor scheduling to the deli, bakery, meat, produce and maintenance departments to achieve the same goals accomplished with the automated front-end scheduling system: predictability of staffing needs, improved customer service and labor savings.
"The majority of labor savings comes out of the front end," he acknowledged. "But sometimes the savings [possible in other departments] are not so obvious. If you are able to identify where your lost time is, for example, you can spend more time on value-added products and services."
Retailers who begin looking closely at productivity and customer service issues, department by department, may meet with resistance from managers unwilling to address policy issues and staff unwilling to modify their behavior.
"There's always resistance to change," Vork said. "But these things can be sympathetically overcome."
Retailers looking to expand automated labor scheduling to other store departments generally target deli, bakery and grocery first.
"We're looking at the possibility of [automating labor scheduling] in larger departments -- the deli and bakery. The grocery department in our larger stores might also lend itself to having a computer write the schedule," said John Connolly, manager of productivity at Hannaford.
"I don't see where the real value would be in having a computer write a schedule in the produce departments where we have five people working," he added.
All Hannaford stores' front-end scheduling is performed by a hybrid system: the forecasting portion was developed in house and the schedule-writing component was purchased. Connolly said scheduling preparation time was cut in half when the system was introduced to the front end, freeing up managers to concentrate on other tasks.
Although automated labor scheduling is currently limited to the front end at Hannaford, other areas within the store are using computers to generate forecasts of weekly staffing needs.
"We have other departments using PCs to project their hour requirements for the coming week and to track the hours they use," Connolly said.
"In grocery, we have a piece tied into the computerized plan that helps us monitor reporting accuracy in the department, so we know how many cases came into a store on a particular week and how many cases were stocked and can monitor that they were reported accurately and [employees were] earning their time correctly."
Early next year the chain may explore bringing automated labor scheduling to other departments. Such a step will require close examination of all operations, department by department.
"You get into headier issues. It's not as cut and dry. With scheduling checkstands, you have the customer [traffic] determining the needs," said an industry consultant whose labor scheduling experience dates back to 1970, when he spearheaded a labor management program on staff at a major Midwest retailer.
"In other departments it requires a management decision, and people tend to shy away from policy issues. [For example,] how often do you sweep the floor? How often do you check the parking lot? How often do you wash the doors?" the consultant said.
Jitney Jungle, which uses computerized labor scheduling in 20 of its 104 stores, is currently asking such questions in efforts to streamline operations and boost productivity.
"We are defining labor standards for each of our areas in our departments, and that would need to come first before we automate labor scheduling in those departments," said Craig Miller, director of store services. "We hope to get there but we have not gotten there yet.
"We'd be looking forward to the same benefits that we have found at the front end: the ability to easily schedule vacations and globally set standards as far as break time, minimum hours and maximum hours per week," he said. "We'd be globalizing employee parameters across all departments, which would be fantastic."
Storewide automated labor scheduling could facilitate cross-utilization of labor, Miller said, but the existing management system cannot accommodate it.
"We put a lot of emphasis on cross-training and that is a current limitation that we have in our time-and-attendance system: It does not allow the transfer of hours from one department to another," he said.
"When we get to the point where we roll out labor scheduling to all departments, it would be important for us to have an updated time-and-attendance systems that would allow us to do that in order to track departmental productivity."
Similar system limitations have prevented Sobey's, Stellarton, Nova Scotia, from expanding automated labor scheduling beyond the front end.
"With the front end, we're forecasting sales, items and customers, creating shifts and doing automated scheduling," said Wayne Foy, manager of management planning. "With other departments, we're not equipped to handle it" because the POS system is not able to generate daily item movement by department.
Like Hannaford Bros., Sobey's uses POS data and an automated forecasting system for other departments, but the schedules are still manually prepared.
Stephen Burke, labor scheduling manager at Big Bear Stores, Columbus, Ohio, said he's considered automated scheduling in other store departments "but it's a little harder to measure when you need the employees because it's not just a customer-driven job," as is the front end.
Supervalu's Vork said computerized labor management systems can offer a wide range of benefits that may not be immediately obvious.
"I think a lot of people have bought labor scheduling systems and never use them completely," he said. "A well-managed program can give you better customer relations, better employee morale and attitudes."