Eight Steps to a Successful Retail Labor Scheduling Implementation

As brick and mortar retailers are under siege by online competition, the criticality to have an engaged, trained, and effectively scheduled workforce has never been higher. Despite the ubiquitous technology being infused into stores, a retailer’s workforce is the best weapon to differentiate the brand and to drive customer satisfaction and sales. Many retailers have made the investment, or have on their roadmaps, to implement robust labor scheduling software application to create optimized schedules. It is a logical expenditure to make considering the potential benefits and the fact that it is a retailer’s highest controllable expense. Unfortunately, many retailers completely fail to implement at all, after spending millions of dollars, or don’t realize projected ROI after implementing. This will not be an assessment of the various labor scheduling software providers (in my experience of implementing different solutions with retailers, most reputable vendors can be effective) but rather bring attention to eight key steps to help ensure success. My definition of success is high end-user adoption and ROI realization.

Step 1: IT as a Strategic Business Partner

It is critical that IT and the business (typically Store Ops, HR, and Finance) work together to define the goals and objectives of the solution and create detailed requirements prior to an RFP to initiate the vendor selection process. Store Ops must be the owner and driver of the business requirements while IT needs to create the technical requirements. Even though in many cases the budget for the capital expenditure of the software / hardware, as well as the budget for internal and external resources may reside in IT, the internal customer is Store Ops and must have a strong voice in the vendor selection. And throughout the entire journey through implementation and ongoing. Store Ops being asked to implement a solution that they had little or no say in the selection of is a recipe for disaster and, unfortunately, one I have personally witnessed too many times.

Step 2: Create a Cross-Functional Team

A labor scheduling implementation touches so many functional areas of a retail business. Stores, Field Management, Corporate Store Ops Support, IT, HR, Finance, Legal, Loss Prevention, Marketing, etc. are all examples of business units impacted by implementation. Many retailers fail to ever create this cross-functional project team or do so too late in the process and often omit critical areas. This is a huge mistake and can be catastrophic to the project’s success. This team needs to be built at the very start of the process, beginning with requirement definition, and progressing with vendor selection, design, testing, pilot, and full rollout. Although all the roles identified are critical, I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to have representation from Store Managers and District Managers as part of this team. They are the ultimate end-users and their finger prints must be all over the engagement from start to completion to ensure their concerns are addressed. This input from stores along the journey, on what will have a major impact on running their business, will be necessary to provide credibility. I have also seen retailers get HR and Legal involved too late in the process, after design sessions (where business work rules are defined) and build has occurred. If a red flag is raised at that point, critical time and resources have been wasted if business policies must be re-designed to mitigate potential exposure.

Step 3: Create / Refine Labor Standards

For a labor scheduling application to be effective, it must have the ability to accurately forecast how much workload will be created and then to schedule people to meet workload demand by day of week and time of day. As a prerequisite, a retailer must have labor standards to create this forecast. Typically, this is done by creating an “activity dictionary” of all activity that occurs within a store and determining workload values for these activities. Normally these activities are classified as either fixed or variable (although some retailers create an even more granular breakdown) and frequency is documented (daily, weekly, monthly, etc.). If an activity is classified as variable, a driver must be identified to forecast workload. Examples may include time needed to unload and stock a truck, which will be based on the number of cartons or units received or cashier hours which will be determined based on the number of transactions. In these examples, cartons / units and transactions are drivers and must be forecasted to determine workload. Do not fall into the trap of rationalizing too many activities as variable. This adds unnecessary complexity and can cause inaccurate workload determination. A litmus test when contemplating if an activity should be fixed or variable is to be honest with yourself about the ability to forecast that driver. You can make a case that the driver for a store planogram is linear feet of shelf space, but if you can’t accurately forecast linear feet by store two weeks out you will be better served using a fixed labor amount. One of the biggest mistake’s retailers make with labor standards is the trap of trying to be precise over accurate. Projecting retail workload is not a precise science and the quest to achieve precision can be a killer in implementing labor scheduling solutions. If you have labor standards in place already, challenge yourself to the need for updates particularly if your business process has changed since the labor standards were originally created or you have implemented new technology to reduce the time it takes for an activity to occur.

Step 4: Operational Readiness

Operational Readiness identifies the non-systematic processes and execution that a retailer must execute. If not quantified and addressed, they will destroy your projected ROI from your labor scheduling solution. Examples include:

Schedule adherence (are your people actually working the posted schedules?)

Associate availability (how flexible is your workforce to address peak and slow business periods by day of week and time of day?)

Full time / part time ratio (high full-time ratios create a very restrictive environment for an optimized labor scheduling solution to create an effective schedule that meets workload forecasts)

Cross-training (have you invested in training your team to perform multiple functions within the store and is this training documented in a system of record?)

The above cannot be addressed by even the most sophisticated software. As part of the process of a successful labor scheduling implementation, you must develop a baseline, quantitative score of where you are and immediately develop an action plan to improve in all areas prior to full implementation. If your organization lacks the discipline to work the schedule, you may have hired too many people with restrictive availability. If your staff has not been trained to perform multiple job functions, the system will be constrained from maximizing its full functionality.

Step 5: Change Management

One of the most common themes I hear when I attend labor scheduling user conferences and listen to retailers tell the story of their experience implementing solutions is that they under-estimated the change management impact on the organization. I have personally witnessed during my years in industry, as well as a consultant, the impact on changing an hourly associate’s schedules, even slightly, is dramatic, stressful, and highly emotional. You need a proactive plan in place to effectively mitigate the risks and ensure user adoption. Your change management team must be part of the project team from the beginning and utilize tools such as stakeholder risk analysis, communication plans, executive alignment and project goals (are we doing this to reduce costs, drive productivity, increase sales, increase the customer experience, etc.). Unfortunately for many Managers and Associates in the field, the term labor scheduling project is synonymous with cost reduction and spurs fear and anxiety. I have been involved in implementations where the business is strong and cost reduction is not the objective and others where it is. In either case it is critical for honest messaging and risk mitigation plans to be executed. Your organization also must decide how aggressive it wants to be in the balance of migrating from associate centric schedules to customer centric schedules. Although in almost all cases there is a desire to move the needle towards customer centric schedules, each retailer must determine how far is too far. Saturdays and Sundays may be your busiest days of the week, but do you really want your full-time associates to work every weekend without ever having a full weekend off? Do you “grandfather” in long tenured, loyal associates and allow them to maintain their current schedules or will the new rules apply to all? There are no simple answers and they will be different for each retailer, but questions like these must be addressed as part of an effective change management plan.

Step 6: Analytics

As you embark on the journey of a labor scheduling implementation, now is the time to determine your analytics strategy and requirements. Many organizations have fragmented reporting and KPIs across the organization. This is your opportunity to evaluate and determine what are the true metrics you are going to utilize to ensure you are achieving desired targets in critical areas such as productivity, cost control, conversion, and customer satisfaction. Most likely as a result of your implementation, you will have access to data that was previously not available to the organization. You also must evaluate the benefits and downside of developing custom reports above and beyond the “canned” reporting provided by your software solution partner. Now is also the time to consider the benefits of leveraging the expertise of and outside firm that can provide tools to use data from not only from Workforce Management software, but combine with other data points such as HR data, Point of Sale (POS), traffic counters, and customer feedback reporting to maximize the vast amount of data available is an easy to use dashboard that can drive actionable results.

Step 7: Phased Implementation

I would never recommend a “big bang” methodology of rolling out labor scheduling to all your stores at the same time. A thoughtful, phased implementation plan is best practice. Your initial pilot store group needs to be small but selected by creating a matrix of store attributes such as sales volume, store size, urban / suburban, manager tenure, state specific labor laws (Example: California), etc. These stores will be your lab and will require hands on attention to ensure the software is performing as designed, edits are kept to a minimum, change management concerns are addressed, etc. A critical part of this phase is the delineation between a true configuration issue (you get additional hours for stocking on Tuesday but you receive your weekly truck on Thursday) as opposed to the schedule is poor but the true issue is that people are now working days and times they didn’t in the past to meet customer traffic patterns. Once issues have been identified and addressed, you can now begin a phased rollout to the remaining stores in the chain and use the pilot District Managers and Store Managers as advocates.

Step 8: Culture of Passion for Labor Management

The journey doesn’t end after the last store goes live on the new application. You must continually follow-up and audit your stores to ensure compliance. Your leadership team must be trained on how to manage with new metrics. You will now have a quantitative score of scheduling effectiveness and the goal should be to partner with your Store Managers to find the root causes of low scores and to provide coaching and guidance on how to improve. If the issue is availability of associates, it may take some time and you will need to develop an action plan. The culture must change, and you can no longer settle for just “meeting payroll budget”. Having the right person, in the right place, at the right time, doing the right thing, will ultimately help drive a great customer experience that cannot be duplicated online.


The benefits of a successful labor scheduling implementation are significant, and your workforce has become the key differentiator in effectively competing in an omnichannel retail environment. However, the risk is high and consequences of a failed implementation are severe. Following these eight steps to a successful labor scheduling implementation will provide your organization the roadmap necessary for benefit realization and risk mitigation.

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