Are Retail Sales People Getting a Raw Deal?

by Deepak Sharma on Saturday, October 04, 2008

Recently I had blogged about what happens when technology and culture collide. The article pointed out in the blog talked about a new Workforce Management System (WFMS) deployed by Ann Taylor and how it is reducing the opportunities for store associates with less success by giving them fewer and less desirable hours while giving the busiest and most desirable hours to associates with higher sales numbers.

Now an article from Knowledge@Wharton, criticizes the Ann Taylor WFMS by comparing it with “squeezing blood out of a turnip” and by describing the initiative as "a case of something that has its roots in a good idea [but that has been] taken too far."

On the Clock: Are Retail Sales People Getting a Raw Deal? - Knowledge@Wharton

Wharton marketing professor Stephen J. Hoch says the Ann Taylor system is like "squeezing blood out of a turnip" and goes a long way toward alienating employees. Erin Armendinger, managing director of Wharton's Jay H. Baker Retailing Initiative, describes the initiative as "a case of something that has its roots in a good idea [but that has been] taken too far."

'The Worst of Dilbert'

While the softening economy may give employers a stronger hand in employee relations, retailers historically have difficulty attracting and retaining qualified workers because the industry pay scale is so low, Hoch points out. "Ann Taylor, and the retail environment in general, is not the only place where people can work. This system potentially creates a hostile working environment. It's the embodiment of the worst of Dilbert."

Hoch acknowledges that Ann Taylor's new scheduling system may be one way to reduce labor costs. "It can be self-fulfilling. If you give people just a few [off-peak] hours, they will look for another job. Maybe that's what [corporate executives] want." He also acknowledges that technology-based information can be valuable to managers, but only if the value is clearly understood throughout the company. Without consistent buy-in, technology-driven management tools will result in adversarial relationships across all staff levels.

Information technology is not a way to overcome weak management, he suggests, noting that human capital management systems must be sold to workers as a valuable tool for all employees and should be accompanied by training sessions. "It should motivate everybody, not just the best sellers. It would be nice to couple it with training to bootstrap people who are not as effective as the top performers."

The article goes on to state, unlike other retailers like Wal-Mart, Payless Shoesource etc who have also deployed WFMS that puts more workers on the floor at the busiest times, Ann Taylor has added the dimension of individual sales productivity to the equation. This additional dimension may backfire by a way of unhappy workers leading to a drop of sales.

Retailers who anger their staff risk major consequences, Armendinger notes. "To your customer, your store's people are your brand," she says. Those "in the corporate office sometimes forget that people on the front line mean more than any strategy you come up with at the corporate office. To treat them as if they are numbers is a little bit disturbing," especially given that employees have their own fixed costs, such as mortgages and car payments, as well as fixed responsibilities which don't always lend themselves to sharp fluctuations in schedules.

Armendinger suggests that rewarding employees with prime working hours based solely on sales numbers is not necessarily the way to generate better sales over time. The Ann Taylor approach is likely to encourage sales associates to put such a premium on sales that they overpower customers with high pressure techniques that will backfire.

"When customers feel a sales person is not genuine, they feel as if they are a piece of meat," she says. "Women do not want to go into a store and be viewed by salespeople as 'a dollar sign'. They want salespeople who will say, 'That color's not right. Here, this is better.' Now, if it takes an extra five minutes, the salesperson will just say, 'That looks great.'" The new scheduling system erodes the relationship between salesperson and client which is particularly valued by older women, the demographic that makes up much of Ann Taylor's customer base, according to Armendinger. "Why [would these customers] go into the store? They can just stay home and shop online."

Successful technology-based management practices must be embedded in social relations, according to Yakubovich. Even sales agents working from their homes in far-flung locations wind up forming spontaneous virtual networks -- for example, going from company chat rooms to private conversations. These networks can work both toward and against the firm's goals, Yakubovich states.

Very good read. Every person touched with WFMS development or deployment needs to read this article on how