Frustrated: That's how customers trying to shop Walmart's grocery aisles describe themselves. They can't find what they want, they say, because what they want isn't on the shelves.
Walmart, according to the Bloomberg News, has so reduced its staffing that there aren't enough workers left to re-stock properly.
Zeynep Ton, a professor at MIT's Sloan School of Management, says retailers who cut staff to cut costs are succumbing to what she calls a vicious cycle: Cutting people, hours and wages does lower costs--at first. But inevitably customer satisfaction suffers, and the employer loses sales.
"Understaffing and the resulting operational problems are not unique to Walmart," Ton tells ABC News. "That's what you see at companies that view labor just as a cost to be minimized."
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An article by Ton in the Harvard Business Review--"Why Good Jobs Are Good 4 Retailing"--prescribes a different solution: a virtuous cycle, in which employers offer employees higher rewards and find themselves with higher profits. While her article draws its examples from retailing, she thinks her findings apply to much of the American workforce.
"Almost one-fifth of American workers have bad jobs," she writes. "They endure low wages, poor benefits, schedules that change with little--if any--notice, and few opportunities for advancement."
Employers assume that the only way they can afford to offer customers low prices is to pay their staff a pittance. Ton argues, however, that her study shows that this presumed trade-off between paying workers more or charging customers more can be broken.
She cites as examples four companies--all highly profitable and all having high customer satisfaction ratings--who treat their employees royally: Costco, Trader Joe's, Quiktrip and the Spanish supermarket chain Mercadona.
These employers, relative to their competitors, says Ton, offer employees high pay, flexible hours, a high measure of autonomy, and good chances for advancement.
At Costco, according to Ton, workers earn about 40 percent more than at its largest competitors. The starting pay at Trader Joe's for a full-time employee is between $40,000 and $60,000 a year, more than twice what some of its competitors offer.
At Quiktrip convenience stores, she writes, wages and benefits are so good that the chain has been named by Fortune one of the 100 best companies to work for every year since 2003. Consumer Reports, she says, ranked Trader Joe's the second-best supermarket chain in the U.S., after Wegman's.
How do these employers manage to offer low prices and relatively high pay? Four practices distinguish them from their competition, says Ton:
They simplify their operations by offering fewer products and promotions; they train their employees to perform multiple tasks; they let employees make minor decisions; and they rigorously eliminate waste in everything but staffing.
Costco and Trader Joe's, says Ton, deliberately carry fewer products than their competitors. Each carries about 4,000 items, compared with the supermarket industry average of roughly 39,000.
"Do customers mind limited options?" she asks. At these two chains, sales per square foot show they don't. With fewer products to sell, she says, employees can be better informed about each and better able to make recommendations to customers.