Scheduling and Retail Work


According to Mac-Vicar, Ferrer, Muñoz, & Henao (2017), unlike other industries, retail stores deal with unpredictable circumstances, which often force managers to adjust employee schedules, when these schedules were already “finalized” days or weeks in advance. Consequently, employees are left facing unpredictable changes in shifts, which decrease both their and their managers’ work-life balance, while increasing their level of stress. The optimal team of employees scheduled at the optimal shift is quintessential in the creation of a great experience for everyone involved.

Unfortunately, finding and creating a (near-) perfect schedule for both employees and managers comes with a few major challenges. The good news is that managers can easily keep the balance between their employees’ needs and their business benefits by implementing an Artificial Intelligence (AI) scheduling system. Here are some of the major scheduling challenges that a smart AI scheduling tool can help resolve.

1.  Unreasonable shift rotations cost businesses more

In an effort to better serve customers, retailers stay open late. Relying on leaner staff to reduce labour costs, they instead fall into unhealthy scheduling practices, which create situations like “clopening,” a growing practice of assigning the same employees to close at night and open the store again on the next morning. This example of unreasonable shift rotation presents high risks of reducing employees’ productivity, since they became more exposed to sleep deficiency, which in turn would impair their judgment, and slow their reaction time, to name a few. This significant decline in, or disturbance of, productivity will jeopardize the business’s operations and growth.

According to a 2010 study by Alertness Solutions, fatigue-related productivity reduction, including burnouts, costs about $2,000 per worker annually; however, when additional variables such as personal life strife and employee demoralization are taken into account, the financial loss are greater. Also, having to deal with personal issues, in addition to unhealthy work-schedules and toxic work environments, distract employees. Consequently, they become less committed and, in a worst-case scenario, they would seek employment elsewhere. The Hay Group reports a median turnover rate of 67% for part-time retail workers in 2012, while the Center for American Progress found that it costs on average $3,328 (or 16% of a manager’s yearly salary) to recruit and train a replacement for a minimum-wage employee.

Our Recommendation

An AI-enabled solution can help optimize schedules, making them both balanced and cost-effective. In setting a few quick scheduling rules (i.e. reserve at least 12 hours between shifts) in the smart scheduler system, managers would restrict unreasonable shift rotations preventing unhealthy work practices. As a result, employees are less disposed to suffering from burnouts. When their work-life balance is healthy, employees’ productivity would peak. Also, eliminating unreasonable shift rotations would help the business reduce turnover rates, increase employee job satisfaction, and reduce operations and Human Resource costs.

2. Human error can create a ripple effect on overall business operations

Common scheduling mistakes, such as forgetting to take employees’ requests into account, double-scheduling or not scheduling at all for a shift, can affect the whole business weekly schedule. Managers may end up taking a tremendous amount of time to sort out the scheduling problem. Most of these mistakes are due to human error, especially if retailers are still using spreadsheet or pen-and-paper methods. Although unintentional, when these mistakes arise, they increase the risks of a ripple effect.

Employee job satisfaction decreases when there are constant scheduling mistakes, which also negatively impacts their work-life balance. When employees are unhappy with their job, they are more likely to experience stress, which will not only affect them, but also their entire team. The overall morale of the team will decline to a point where it breeds employee disengagement. New York Times best-selling author, Kevin Kruse, carried out an employee engagement research and found that customer loyalty are doubled (i.e. repeat purchases, and friends referral) for companies with high employee-engagement, compared to businesses with average employee-engagement levels. On one hand, Gallup claims a 20% boost of profitability for companies with high employee-engagement. On the other hands, managers risk losing service standards, as well as decreasing their sales and profits when the business experiences employee disengagement. In a nutshell, human errors in shifts and employee scheduling has the potential to start an overall retail workflow disturbance, which could badly damage the business’s growth and success in the long run.

Our Recommendation

Implementing automated smart-scheduling processes decreases the possibility of human error. With an AI-based scheduling method, managers will only have to log their employees’ preferences once and the intelligent scheduler would automatically consider these preferences each time new schedules are generated. The smart software could also recognize schedule missteps and problems, allowing the managers to fix them before the schedule is published. Allowing flexible scheduling and constant revision of shifts, the automated smart-scheduling software permits the managers to diminish their administrative workload, while reducing the schedule-related stress and unhealthy shifts for the employees.

3. Poor communicate makes it hard to accommodate last-minute shift changes

Last-minute shift changes often happen because of unforeseen circumstances such as unreliable transportation, illness, childcare issues, and weather. As a result, retail employees tend to request shift trades and swaps more frequently as many of them work part-time in multiple businesses. Quite often, part-time employees are not provided a formal way to request last-minute shift changes, and their request will get lost in a mailbox, voicemail, or text/SMS, resulting in miscommunications, delays, and inability to find a quick and adequate replacement.

Our Recommendation

Automation of communications via a single, unified platform is a simple alternative. A smart scheduling system offers self-service functions that allow employees to manage their own availability and schedules in real-time from anywhere, on their mobile devices or computers. The system can also automatically alert the employees and managers of any changes or shift-swaps in the schedule. The system also has the ability to suggest the most qualified employees, which allows managers to avoid scheduling the same employees on overtime shifts.   

4. Labour legislation becomes the new burden of retail scheduling

Retail employees face two main scheduling challenges: 1. They often receive their schedules less than a week in advance; and 2. many employees have no say in their schedules. As a result, American authorities, such as the Federal Schedules that Work Act, start introducing laws to address these challenges. In 2014 and 2015, a group of American states and Democrat politicians introduced legislation to increase scheduling predictability. Retailers that do not comply with such laws and regulations risk facing significant financial penalties. For example, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed two ordinances in 2014 (codified as San Francisco Police Code Article 33F and San Francisco Police Code Article 33G) requiring employers to issue additional “predictability pay” for schedule changes that are given less than two-week advance notice. Moreover, retailers also encounter negative PR problems. For example, Wal-Mart has often been accused by working mothers for giving them unpredictable schedules and low wages, which decreases their work/life balance. Starbucks has also made the New York Times headlines for giving its employees less than a few days’ notice about their schedules and for not providing the employees enough hours to optimize the business’s workforce.

Our Recommendation

When designing a schedule, the smart scheduler takes into account laws and regulations, while enforcing key constraints. With a few workplace rules in the system, managers are able to stop worrying about any potential legislation violations. The automation process can spare managers and their employees from the complexities of dealing with ever-changing laws and regulations (both governmental and internal).

Whether it is a small boutique or a large retail store, there are many intelligent tools on the market that could suit the specific needs of the business. Technological tools such as MESHAI or Kronos can eliminate the scheduling issues we have identified above. With a press of a button, an AI-enabled scheduling software has the capacity of create a (near-)perfect schedule that benefits employees, managers, and the business. Take a look at our article Optimise Your Work Flow with Intelligent Scheduling Tools: A Review  to learn more about the different types of scheduling solutions available on the market.