Today’s Retail Model Cuts Too Many Good Employees Loose


Retail hasn’t just changed how people shop, it changed how people work.

When Tamara* was hired eight years ago she understood why she was scheduled for the showroom floor. A sales associate’s job was sales-driven and sales happened face-to-face. Tamara knew her job was to build relationships with customers, and luckily, her shifts gave her time to do that. Some loyal customers even planned their trips around days Tamara worked.

Now her job is different.

Now Tamara works a different schedule every week. Even if her customers knew her schedule, they may never see Tamara because they may never walk further than the customer service desk. Customers now help themselves with selecting, purchasing and pick up, so Tamara’s customer interactions focus merely on answering questions about price matching and free shipping. When sales are down or traffic is slow, Tamara gets sent home early. During an unexpected rush, she’s called in last minute. With such unpredictability, she couldn’t have a second job even though she wants one. There’s little opportunity for upward movement or more experience internally, so why bother even showing up.

This is the new face of retail: an industry that diversified its services, but not its employees. “Flexibility” is code for unpredictability and instability. “Self-service” is code for do-it-yourself (i.e., customers doing more work – online ordering, in-store pickup, self-checkout). But Tamara’s struggles are all symptoms of a scheduling imbalance; a problem that workforce management professionals can address.

Retail work may be changing, but workers like Tamara need not be marginalized and displaced. To help her and others transition to the new world of work, WAM-Pros (like front-line managers, HR professionals, and even WFM technology consultants) can work with retailers to develop ways to adapt and improve the work schedule.

Optimize activity, not shifts

Even with more self-service buying, retail still benefits from in-store workers; their activities are just different. A customer walks into the store looking for something. Tamara asks and finds out that he wants to pick up the dress shoes he ordered online. Tamara swings over to the customer service counter to find it in the system. She dashes to the backroom and scans the inventory for the purchase number. She hands him the item and comments on his fine taste in fashion. He smiles, reassured that he made the right choice.

Even though Tamara didn’t do any “selling” she was a necessary piece of this sale (and future sales).  She isn’t just a sales floor associate aimlessly roaming the store looking for customers, she’s cross-trained to perform a variety of activities at any time. She provides a consistent experience for the customer by transitioning from one role to the next with equal competency. She knows to perform critical tasks (e.g., processing payments) during volume peaks and secondary tasks (e.g., confirming inventory) during lulls.

Her performance and productivity aren’t predicated on a strict plan, but flex with the flexing needs of the store. A late delivery can jeopardize the store’s readiness for the sale and the need for Tamara to work. Rather than sending her home early for the day, her manager should assign her to other meaningful duties like checking pickup orders, removing outdated price tags, or reorganizing sale displays.

Instead of attaching a person to a single set of activities (cashiers only work the register), retailers can train people on many sets of activities to minimize down-time. By optimizing the allocation of activities during a shift, it’s the work activity that becomes variable, not the shifts themselves.

Build stable schedules around fulfillment

Today, retail workers often do more to fulfill a customer’s desires (i.e., they’ve already decided to buy), than to convert them to a sale; but even if stores aren’t driving conversions, they can increase the transaction size and frequency by creating a community of familiar faces.

Customers used to shop only when Tamara was working, but her new schedule is so unstable not even Tamara can keep up. If Tamara was consistently scheduled every Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, she could regain her customer community. Customers like buying from people they know and like. If traffic is slow, Tamara could be scheduled to run a community event at the store during non-peak hours to increase foot traffic or demo a new product instead of being sent home early. Overlapping shifts can provide coverage during peaks without the need for call-ins or a disrupted customer experience.

Build schedules around expectations (e.g., peak times, employee preference), but also around creative means that drive demand (e.g., longer, more frequent shifts give employees more time to engage with customers, provide quality service, and support the sale.)

New types of work need new metrics

Oftentimes, employees like Tamara lose hours because of low in-store sales. But if retail is changing, then metrics for store workers should change too.

For example, higher sales numbers may seem to indicate that someone is a better seller, however this isn’t necessarily the case.  If Tamara was never scheduled during peak hours she would always have comparatively lower sales rates. She’d suffer the same fate if she decided to help with the non-sales tasks of other associates. Retailers need to adjust and align performance metrics to not only the business objectives, but also to the realities of selling and the essential activities workers perform in the new store model.

Consider the activities that support new customers buying habits. Reward associates for converting a return into an exchange or for using shopper data to suggest that a frequent customer sign-up for an automatic monthly refill of laundry detergent or soap.


Admit it, you shop differently now, yet this doesn’t make Tamara’s role obsolete. In fact, retailers need great employees like Tamara even more. Consumers have less tolerance for disengaged associates or impersonal service when they come in the store. These are often the products of a poor schedule and a misapplied workload.

Instead of taking the easy route and letting Tamara go, her manager could redefine and redistribute the workload to create a new type of flexible schedule where activities flex, not people. HR could help redefine Tamara’s job through a job task analysis that included a different assortment of tasks and activities to fill her day. Store operators could develop an innovative customer service experience to increase sales and allow Tamara to transition to a new job within the store or a new location. HR and front-line managers could even reconsider Tamara’s metrics in the context of ecommerce and other retail fulfillment realities.

The problem is, they probably don’t know how.

Don’t lose good employees like Tamara. Start looking at how you’ve distributed the workload and how you use your capacity to handle new demand requirements. Think of the schedule not as a set of tasks tied to an individual, but a mix of activities distributed along the peaks and valleys of customer needs.  Many retailers aren’t doing it right, but they can be trained to fix what’s wrong.


*Tamara is a fictional character, but her story is based on real-events.


Rachel Disselkamp understands scheduling in ways most have never considered. She’s not only interested in why scheduling seems broken, Rachel also developed a full set of metrics to measure how good your schedules really are. If your schedules aren’t meeting the needs of your employees or your business, Rachel can help you creatively fix a long list of schedule problems. If your schedule isn’t something you are proud of, then it’s time you enrolled in her Schedule Rehab course.