Retailers using labor scheduling software are generating rapid returns on investment, particularly in the time saved mapping out cashiers' schedules. The software also has the potential to improve customer service, by ensuring that front-end staffing levels match anticipated customer traffic.
Retailers, however, would like to see improvements in the software packages available, including programs that more easily interface with point-of-sale and other in-store systems.
They are also seeking programs that are more sensitive to supermarket-specific scheduling factors, especially as they consider expanding the software's use to employees performing other functions throughout the store.
Only about 25% of the 470 supermarkets serviced by Spartan Stores, Grand Rapids, Mich., are using or testing such software, although more are coming on-line all the time, said Bill Scheer, manager of retail technology.
Scheer said he recommends labor-scheduling software to all but the smallest stores, largely because Spartan has found the payback for the investment to be as short as three or four months. "You can't ignore the savings," he said.
Time spent on labor scheduling, long one of the most arduous tasks facing a front-end manager week after week, can be cut by the software by as much as three-quarters, sources told SN.
Popular versions of labor-scheduling software already take into account employee availability, union rules and state and federal labor regulations. They can even suggest the best times for workers to take lunch or coffee breaks.
Some supermarkets have stayed off the labor-scheduling software bandwagon because of resistance from front-end staffers who don't want their schedules to change. For example, Scheer noted that a longtime clerk who has worked the 8-to-5 shift might rebel if asked to accommodate busier evening hours instead.
"If you want to save labor costs and improve scheduling, you have to deal with those cultural factors," Scheer said.
Another key concern among labor-scheduling software users is the software's compatibility -- or lack thereof -- with other information systems performing, for example, time-and-attendance and POS functions. Integration issues continue to vex information-technology departments.
"Integration is the No. 1 issue" involving labor-scheduling software, said Tom Roesener, vice president of store operations/store development for 16-store Clemens Markets, Kulpsville, Pa. "It's no different than any other peripheral to the POS system. You have to get them to work together."
Clemens, which purchased new scheduling software to complement a new scanning system it's implementing chainwide, ordered its labor-scheduling vendor to write special code that would allow data of all kinds to be downloaded from the POS system to the scheduling package. In the future, labor-scheduling software will more readily interface with the best-selling POS systems, Roesener predicted.
"The POS system is the brain of the store," he said. "You have to be able to collect more and more data from it to better schedule for fluctuations in shopping patterns that change continuously. Most vendors are realizing that easier integration is the only way they're going to get their product sold."
Other users of labor-scheduling software note different limitations in the applications that make them fall short of ideal.
Lisa Henry, retail systems specialist at Hannaford Bros., Scarborough, Maine, expressed frustration that many scheduling packages don't accept parameters other than a store's overall sales volume and number of checkouts when determining how many clerks are needed and at what times.
She said she would like to see software take into account historical data from sales on holidays as well as sales periods immediately following federal food-stamp distributions. "In Utopia, there would be a lot more you could do with more accurate forecasting" when using labor-scheduling software, Henry said.
Most labor-scheduling software bases staffing decisions on sales, measured in 15-minute increments.
Hannaford recently reviewed five labor-scheduling packages after deciding to scrap its old software for one that's Y2K-compliant. It found a wide variety of products on the market, including software designed for use on mainframe computers and PC-based applications.
"Some were totally prehistoric and some were pretty good," Henry said. Hannaford is currently implementing a Unix-based application throughout its 170-store chain.
Some day, Henry predicted, labor-scheduling software will include features that allow scheduling data to be exported to an Internet site, so employees could check their work hours from home at their convenience.
Programs that tie in to an automated telephone system would also be more functional, she added. Callers would punch in their personal identification numbers and listen to a computer-generated voice announce their schedules.
"It would be great to offer Web access" to the schedules, Henry said. A leading developer of labor-scheduling software told SN that Internet-based versions are on their way to the market.
Labor-scheduling software has traditionally been used almost exclusively for front-end staffing, the most labor-intensive department in a supermarket. But many supermarkets are exploring the use of the software in other, smaller departments.
One of the drawbacks in applying automated labor scheduling to non-POS departments is that their demands for personnel are often unrelated to store traffic patterns. For example, employees are needed to sweep floors, prepare food, unload trucks and perform other tasks, no matter how many shoppers are roaming the aisles at the time.
Software developers are being forced to take a production approach to scheduling rather than the typical front-end strategy that stresses the number, frequency and size of transactions, a source familiar with labor-scheduling vendors said.
"The labor standards that go into the software are all different," for non-front-end departments, the source said. For example, when developing scheduling parameters for a bakery, programmers must understand how long it takes to bake bread, how many people need to be on hand at different points in the process, and when stores want the bread to be ready by.
Despite the growing market for labor-scheduling software, retailers shouldn't expect costs of the applications to mirror the downward trend of computer hardware prices. Leading software vendors claim that if they knew how much money their software packages would save supermarkets in labor expenses, they would have stuck far higher price tags on the products when they rolled them out, the source said.