Nearly 9 million people in the United States work in retail. In November and December those ranks swell with temporary holiday employment. If you’ve stood in line at the grocery store, hunted for a sweater in a department store, or ordered a hamburger at a fast-food restaurant, you know that most of those jobs are not good jobs.
If you employ people in retail, you probably know that too. But you also know the conventional wisdom: To offer low prices and make money in businesses with razor-thin margins, you must keep labor costs down. That doesn’t manifest itself just in low wages; it also results in unpredictable schedules and few opportunities for success and growth.
Zeynep Ton’s Good Jobs Strategy refutes this trade-off. It advocates for higher wages and deeper investment in frontline workers and for making smart operational choices that leverage the investment in people. The Good Jobs Strategy results in better customer service and higher productivity — and prices that are just as low.
Ton and the Good Jobs Institute, a nonprofit she cofounded, recognize that implementing the Good Jobs Strategy isn’t easy. Part of understanding how to make the transformation involves taking the current measure of retail. To that end Ton’s colleague Sarah Kalloch took a short-term job as a frontline worker at a local outlet of a major U.S. retailer. She clocked in and out for nine weeks to understand what it is like to work in retail and what challenges prevent workers from delivering a great customer experience. I recently spoke with Kalloch about what she learned during her time on the job. Edited excerpts follow.
APPLYING AND TRAINING
HBR: Why go through this exercise?
KALLOCH: When I joined Zeynep to spread the Good Jobs Strategy, I wanted to understand how systems help or hinder frontline workers in terms of the customer experience and the company’s goals. I learn best by doing. I had never worked in retail, but I love to organize things, I love to make shelves look good, and I love to help people. I was excited, and I wanted to really understand the work and to go through the whole cycle of applying, interviewing, training, and serving customers. I also wanted to work hard and earn my $11 an hour. You call it an exercise, but this was a real job for me, and I wanted to deliver.
Did you choose the retailer because you specifically wanted a good- or a bad-job experience?
No. I applied online to several retail stores to work in frontline roles, and I got a call for an interview from two. I drove half an hour to one interview only to have them tell me that their computer system had been down all day and they could not interview me. I had a brief interview at the second store, and they did a background check — and I was hired. They didn’t call my references, which was a little surprising — I had never worked in retail and had kind of a crazy résumé. If I had been the hiring manager, I would have done more due diligence.
But that’s exactly what we’ve observed at other companies. Many managers simply don’t have the time for thorough hiring. Their stores are experiencing high turnover, and they need to fill positions fast. They end up hiring the wrong people, which is bad for the company, bad for employees who aren’t the right fit, and bad for existing employees, who get a teammate who is unable to contribute.
So you got the job. Then what?
Training. My training group of six included one person who probably should not have been hired — I knew within 10 minutes of meeting her that she was not reliable. And it turned out that she was frequently absent, which made work worse for the rest of us. But the manager was contending with tight labor hours, high turnover, and high absenteeism. He needed to fill roles and could not escape that vicious circle.
I was told that after some general computer-based training, I’d be paired with a staffer in my department who would train me in my specific job. I felt good about that plan — but it’s not what happened.
I had about 40 hours of training — but 20 were wasted by technology glitches, unproductive shadowing outside my department, and just waiting to be told what to do next. When I finally got onto the store floor, I was unprepared to do my job. I had not even had a store tour — I had no idea where things were or where they belonged in my area, never mind in the whole store. I was terrified.
DAY ONE: A NEW JOB ALREADY?
What was your first day like?
Orientation started at 9 AM. I was put in a room with several other new hires. No one said anything to us — we were not given an agenda.
For the next two hours the manager called people into his office one at a time to do paperwork. We had nothing to do while we waited for our turns. We just sat in the room. One man fell asleep. Two women left several times for smoke breaks. I read everything on the walls. Finally a staff person came in to talk to us. He started right in with pay periods, schedules, how to clock in, and the attendance policy. He then showed us three completely unrelated and totally bizarre videos: one that seemed to be about customer service, one on how to use heavy equipment, and one on benefits — which I did not qualify for. There was some important safety information; we skipped over that. He did not talk to us about the company’s strategy. Or culture. Or our roles. Or how many people it employs. Or how many customers it serves. Or anything that would provide a foundation for why we were there and what we were part of and why we mattered. By the end of day one all I knew about the job was that I needed to show up.
Do you think this happened because the company didn’t value its frontline employees? Or was it something else?
It’s a systemic problem. It was frustrating, because that profoundly disorienting orientation cost the company money and goodwill. We were paid two hours for sitting and waiting. We were not treated with respect or set up to succeed for the customer. The manager orienting us seemed pulled in several directions. And this happens at companies across the U.S. Managers operating without slack in high-turnover environments are often unable to create conditions in which new employees can learn and thrive — and that drives even more turnover.
Now you’re on the job. Did it improve once you got into the flow?
Unfortunately, no. Weirdly, on my first training day a manager told me to shadow a cashier. I was surprised, because I hadn’t been hired for a cashier position. I’d been hired to stock shelves and answer customers’ questions. The first cashier they matched me with did not speak much English and hadn’t been trained as a trainer. In fact, no one had been. The second cashier I was matched with left me alone at the register to use the bathroom. During that time I rang up a mother and son and forgot to give them one of their bags. I was horrified. They had been kind, and I had completely failed them.
This went on for days — ineffective cashier shadowing and failing in front of customers, interspersed with computer-based training. And after all that shadowing, I never cashiered again.
The Good Jobs Strategy encourages cross-training. You want people to have mastery in one or two areas but to be flexible enough to do a couple other jobs as well. But to me, this was the worst way to cross-train. I wasn’t trained well enough on the cash register to feel comfortable working it. Meanwhile, I wasn’t gaining skills in the job I had been hired for. It made me less effective and less able to serve customers.
THE 40-HOUR 20-HOUR WORKWEEK
Did you go to your manager with your concerns?
I almost never saw my manager, partly because we often worked different shifts. Also, because the store had such incredible staff instability, he never knew whether workers would come in or not. I think he kind of gave up on managing and just did the tasks himself. When I came in — every day, and on time — he never had anything planned for me to do.
One day I came in for a nine-hour shift and saw a manager restocking shelves in my section. I thought that was odd — I would be there for the next nine hours, and that was my job. But I moved to a different area and got to work. I work hard, and I work fast. Within 90 minutes the whole section looked great except for some stockouts, which I was not trained or equipped to solve. I had 7.5 more hours in my shift, but the manager I had seen earlier was gone. I did whatever I could. I put things away and answered customers’ questions, but it probably added up to about 10 minutes of work per hour. It was a gorgeous summer Saturday, and it was not busy. I was basically jumping up and down and waving my arms, screaming, “Give me more work,” but no one cared. That day I wrote in my notes, “How am I supposed to care about my work if no one cares about me?”
The kicker is that I hadn’t wanted to come in that day. I’d asked for the day off so that I could attend an event that night. They’d offered to have me come in and leave earlier, but the schedule never got changed. Our schedules were totally unpredictable. I had asked to work 20 hours a week, but I was usually scheduled for 40 and had to ask the manager to change it. The situation was completely untenable, but everyone had to deal with it — we were told it was a system error, but it happened every week. Nothing was done to correct it. Schedules changed all the time.
I don’t think it was the nature of this particular company that caused the problem. It was the nature of a business in which the labor model generates bad jobs. We have seen this kind of chaos and instability at other retailers. One grocery store manager at a company we studied wanted to develop people and build his team but found himself behind the register several hours a day because people didn’t show up to work. With a tight labor model, there was no slack in the system. Retailers may think this saves money, and it may in the short term — but it is very costly in the long term.
All I wanted to do every day was be busy and productive so that I could contribute to the company and, frankly, so that the time would pass quickly. And I really wanted to be able to help people. But I never had the tools or knowledge I needed — and I hardly ever had assignments.
COMMUNICATION BETWEEN THE FRONT LINE AND HEADQUARTERS
Did you ever feel like taking matters into your own hands when things were going poorly?
That really wasn’t possible. Headquarters had clear plans for the store — but they did not always correspond with the realities on the ground or the resources we had.
During one of my shifts we got the floor plans for a holiday display. I helped set up the infrastructure for it — hooks and baskets and shelves. It was going to be a good day: I had a big project, and I love holidays.
The plans for the display sent by headquarters looked great. Our final display did not. We were missing maybe a third of the merchandise, and we weren’t allowed to fill in the gaps with holiday merchandise we had on hand for other sections; we had to leave parts of the display empty. As frontline workers, we had no visibility into why that happened. Maybe visual hadn’t talked to planning, or logistics was delayed, or something went wrong outside the store walls. Time, money, and materials were wasted — and the customer suffered.
Supply chains and planning are very complex and will never be perfect, but the best companies simplify whatever they can and empower stores to adjust when things change — and give them the slack to do so. We were not empowered to adjust the floor set, so it sat half empty even though we had merchandise in the back, which hurt business and made me feel we were not trusted to make decisions in our own store.
Were there things you could do on your own to make the customer experience better? Would you have felt comfortable proposing changes to headquarters or your managers?
I tried. We always talk about the fact that much of what needs to be improved is invisible to headquarters but clear to frontline workers, and that is totally true. I had ideas for addressing various operational challenges, and so did my coworkers. They were not radical changes; they were easy, often cheap or no-cost solutions that would have saved time and money or given customers a better experience or both.
But we had no outlet for our ideas. In fact, if you brought up a challenge with a manager, you were labeled a troublemaker. I found this out the hard way. I brought up a problematic process to a manager and asked if there might be a better way to do it. She excoriated me in front of other people. I felt she was basically telling me to be quiet and do my job.
A coworker who had been there for years saw this and reached out to me on break. He was very kind and said he was sorry for the way she had treated me — but that was the culture. He said, “If you just do what they say, they will love you. If you bring them problems, they will hate you. If you make them do any extra work, they will hate you.”
Again, in this chaotic environment — which we have seen at other retailers — managers did not have time to problem-solve. They barely had time to get tasks done — forget hiring, training, developing, and leading. I don’t think they were encouraged to solve problems or that they necessarily had the skills and resources to do so. They needed people to keep the boat afloat, not rock it. They could not spend 30 minutes solving a problem even if that could save thousands of hours in the future — there was just too much to do in the moment to think long-term and innovate and improve.
ENDURING AN EMOTIONAL ROLLER COASTER, FOR $100 A DAY
How would you sum up your nine weeks at the store?
Working in a retail store is physically and emotionally exhausting. Physically, I was lifting heavy boxes, walking all around the store, going up and down ladders, and standing on my feet all day. Emotionally, I was on a roller coaster. When I had a clear assignment or could connect customers with what they’d come in for, I felt good. But most of the time I experienced frustration, boredom, and waste all around me. Every day I came home demoralized and drained, and with less than $100 to show for it.
I had some wonderful coworkers who went above and beyond to do their very best every day, to support one another, and to make the customer experience as good as possible. It takes real skill to ring someone up quickly, and it takes time and attention to get to know hundreds or thousands of products so that when the time comes to help a customer, you can do it well. But the system did not allow any of us to be as productive and engaged as we wanted to be. Operational inefficiencies and a lack of investment in people wasted talent, time, money, productivity, and consumer trust.
Retailers have options: They can invest in people who will be problem solvers and customer service dynamos and who will own their store operations and make them productive and positive — and profitable. Or they can underinvest in people and operations and create chaos and instability for employees and customers. The choice seems really clear to me. We know a lot about how to help companies transform bad jobs into good ones. It is not easy. But neither is operating in chaos. And the rewards that come with good jobs and strong operations can ensure that companies weather this tough retail time and come out adaptable, agile, and profitable. That’s a win for everyone. The Big Idea
More Info: hbr.org
Categories: Money Matters