Task Management:Avoiding a Black Hole for Store Investment

Within the scope of retail workforce management, one topic has emerged in the last six months that has been something of a quiet player in the last few years, and that is task management.

Task management has many names that it can go by - from store execution management, to workload management, to store performance management. All of these terms get to the same thing ultimately: retailers invest a lot of money non-selling labor hours in stores, but have little visibility into how those hours are spent, and whether employees were effective or efficient in using those hours. Non-selling labor hours, without that visibility, is a huge black hole of money that retailers invest in stores without any idea of the return that they're getting.

It's true that I am biased - I believe in this space enough that I at one time worked for a vendor that provided these solutions (in the interest of full disclosure, I used to work for StorePerform, which is now the store execution arm of RedPrairie). In all fairness, Reflexis is also a significant player in the space, and many other workforce management vendors have toyed with the idea of providing task management solutions as well.

However, while there has always been a level of interest, recent conversations with retailers have indicated that, just like price optimization, workload optimization is becoming ante in workforce management today - retailers are starting to expect to have these capabilities simply to be competitive. Given the surge of renewed interest that RSR has seen from both vendors and retailers, we thought we would present our take on the value, opportunities, and challenges of task management.

The Value. Aside from giving retailers greater control over the black hole of non-selling labor hours, there is significant value in task management solutions. The value comes from better execution in stores. At this point, skeptics might say that measuring the value of improved execution is extremely hard to do, but I assure you it is not. First, one of the biggest challenges around store execution is making sure that the right work is done in stores in the right time frame. When there is no central management of non-selling labor hours, then it becomes a free-for-all for stores' time.

And when too many people across merchandising, marketing, finance, HR, and operations are piling on too much work for the time available, the net result is that stores make in-the-heat-of-the-moment decisions about what gets done and what does not. If merchandising and marketing are banking on a big promotion to generate significant lift, but only half the stores get the promotion rolled out in time, there is no way the promotion is going to hit its target. And that's no esoteric back-of-the-envelope guesstimation of value. That's real dollars. And that's only one example of what's possible.

The Challenge. The challenge is not, as many first assume, that stores will resist the system because they are concerned about "Big Brother" watching them. In fact, stores are usually the first to embrace an implementation because they can see right away that it promises to bring sanity back into their lives. By implementing task management, a retailer is implicitly promising that it will not give stores more work than can realistically be handled in a given week (or if there is, it's an explicit decision with known consequences, instead of the free-for-all that exists today). The challenge is more about getting corporate organizations to play along and use the system as the only way to communicate work to stores, and to accept that they cannot plan against some theoretical limitless supply of store labor for the things they need to have done. Price changes, for example, have a store labor cost that is very rarely incorporated into merchandising's decision to change prices. But for every price change that goes down to stores, there is a store associate who is too busy - or potentially not even the floor - to help customers. Getting that buy-in at corporate is not easy, but it is critical to making the most of task management implementations.

If you are a retailer that is constantly battling between merchandising and marketing, who swear they have created the best promotions, merchandising, and marketing plans to meet financial objectives if only stores would execute, and stores that howl over the amount work that they are expected to do and rarely get everything done that is expected of them, then you have a task management problem. If you're looking to find ways to enable store employees to spend more time with customers, you have a task management challenge. Are we truly at the point where task management is ante in the customer service game? Perhaps not quite yet, but we definitely seem to be getting close.

To learn more about best practices in workforce management from RSR's research, visit www.rsrresearch.com.
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