The Wal-Mart effect on workers

A dissenting view on the retail giant's new plan to maximize efficiency.

By Andrew Leonard
Published January 4, 2007 11:18PM (EST)

Charles Fishman, author of "The Wal-Mart Effect," excerpted in Salon last year (and newly out in paperback this month), took issue with my plan to optimize my own labor habits in 2006 by imitating Wal-Mart. I asked him if I could publish his response; after a little cleaning up, here it is:

Andrew, I must dissent from your thoughts about Wal-Mart's effort to "optimize" staffing. I think the plan described (first in the New York Times back in November, by the way) in yesterday's Wall Street Journal is wrong-headed, disrespectful, and won't solve the problems Wal-Mart is trying to solve -- while creating new ones.

Scheduling people is not, in fact, like scheduling electricity purchases or scheduling the arrival of trucks at a loading dock. You can't "optimize" them if their work lives spin their personal lives into chaos and uncertainty. Not having a fixed schedule means greatly complicating child care -- and Wal-Mart store employees don't have the kind of child-care flexibility that a large salary can sometimes buy. It also means uncertainty about paychecks.

The morale and attitude that people come to work with each day really matters to your business -- and affects your business. People who are treated as if they were simply game pieces to be moved around won't stock merchandise with enthusiasm or deliver the kind of customer service Lee Scott would hope. More important in the long term, good people won't work at your store if they are treated the way the new schedule will result in their being treated -- in terms of managing both their lives and their incomes. No one who is serious about full-time work can tolerate having a different schedule and a different paycheck across seven days every week.

Wal-Mart's big problem is long lines at checkout. It often takes longer to check out than to fill your shopping cart in the first place. Here's a simpler solution: Schedule two more checkout clerks at every store for every shift. Will it cost money? Sure. But customers clearly walk out, or pass up shopping at Wal-Mart in the first place, because the lines are so long. I personally walked out of two Wal-Marts, leaving behind full shopping carts (that had to be restocked), during the holidays because the lines were too long. Wal-Mart could also use existing employees to open additional checkout lines -- putting aside their routine work -- when lines get particularly long. And they could use a manager to guide customers to the next open line, rather than letting people "guess" which line will move fastest (a system Whole Foods uses with great effectiveness).

One of Wal-Mart's biggest problems is its relationship with its own employees. About 50 percent of Wal-Mart employees in the U.S. quit every year -- that's 12,000 employees a week who quit and need to be replaced. What's the cost of that, both in literal terms, and in terms of lost opportunity because employees are so inexperienced?

Sam Walton never had a problem with his employees when he ran the company -- because he had a bedrock respect for them. It's hard to believe that he would approve of this way of "optimizing" assets, given how fundamentally disrespectful it is to the very people on whom the business is built.

Wal-Mart has been talking about changing for a year -- and some things are changing. But for a typical customer, at a typical Wal-Mart, the in-store experience hasn't changed at all. This plan isn't going to create a wave of bright-faced, helpful, energetic and motivated employees to deal with customers. It may improve checkout times for a while at some stores at some times of day. But in the long term, it's bad for employees, bad for customers, and bad for Wal-Mart. (It's also not the example you should pick from Wal-Mart's management techniques about how to improve your own life this year.)

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Globalization How The World Works Unemployment Wal-mart