February 1, 2007, 12:00 AM

Work It

New web-based workforce management tools enable retailers to coordinate activities with worker productivity.

With retailers coming under more pressure to provide better customer service and increase operating efficiencies across all sales channels, they are taking a closer look at web-based workforce management applications.

The intent is not to install an automated time and attendance application, although that is where many retailers start. More important, retailers want workforce management applications that can integrate into their operating platforms to allow for better management of employee productivity, flow of sales and customer service information between each sales channel, as well as provide real-time tracking of worker performance.

“Workforce management applications let us determine what level of service we want to provide and develop strategies to meet our service needs across all channels,” says Rosie Larraneta, operations manager at Norm Thompson Outfitters Inc., an online and catalog retailer of apparel, home furnishings, and outdoor sporting and camping products. “The applications provide a better macro- and micro-view of worker productivity.”

The improved data flow across all departments also enables real-time performance metrics to be made available to supervisors and even employees to keep them abreast of how effectively the company is meeting daily sales and customer service targets, and take corrective action as needed. Making this type of data available at the service representative level also can serve as a motivational tool by providing insight into team performance.

“When it comes to workforce management, retailers are stepping back to think about how it can improve processes across their business, not just time and attendance,” says Gale Daikou, research director, retail, industry advisory services, at research and consulting firm Gartner Inc. “They are looking for ways to use workforce management applications to attack a business problem and improve task management to provide a more granular view of workforce productivity.”

Tidal wave

Web-based workforce management applications can provide this granular view because employers can integrate them across administrative channels such as legal, payroll, accounting and human resources, in addition to distribution and warehouse. In many cases, each of these departments will communicate with each of a retailer’s sales channels in a blanket fashion. The result can be a tidal wave of directives that are not necessarily applicable to a particular sales channel but which are sent out anyway.

This shotgun approach to communicating directives can bog divisional managers down in a sea of memos and cost them from seven to 15 hours per week of productivity, industry experts say. Integrating workforce management systems into a retailer’s operating platform makes it possible for each department to avoid the shotgun approach and select where each directive will be sent, such as to a specific manager, sales channel or store, based on data specific to each recipient.

“Rather than sending to a generic list, directives can be targeted to where they need to go,” says Murtaza Ghadyali, vice president of product management at Reflexis Inc., a provider of web-based workforce management applications. “Having specific performance metrics for a store or sales channel allows retailers to drill down to find out why performance objectives are not being met and take corrective actions where needed.”

The integrated view being provided by workforce management applications can be brought down to the time-clock to provide such data as whether employees are punching in too early for a shift or punching out too late. By linking the time-clock to payroll, retailers can determine how much they are paying employees for non-productive time, since employees arriving too early for a shift do not immediately start work and those leaving too late tend to do so because they are often performing non-work-related tasks.

“The need to link time and attendance to other areas of the business is prompting retailers to look at workforce management more as an application suite so they can get a real-time view of productivity,” explains Gartner’s Daikou.

Doubling productivity

Such insights enable retailers to improve shipments to stores and the picking and packing of orders. Productivity has more than doubled at Papyrus, a multi-channel retailer that sells greeting cards, since implementing a workforce management application from RedPrairie Corp. in 2003.

Since integrating the application to its operating platform with web-based integration technology, Fairfield, Calif.-based Papyrus has been able to track in real time the number of deliveries made per hour by its drivers to distribution centers and more than 150 stores. The application has been integrated into the hand-held wireless bar code readers drivers use to scan boxes delivered at each stop.

The readers feed into the central operating system such information as the time of the delivery and the location to which the boxes were delivered, as well as all information related to the driver’s route. The data then is used to chart hourly deliveries and track the driver location in real time.

Armed with the ability to track product movement in its distribution channel, Papyrus identified weak spots in the distribution process, such as poor route planning, and has steadily increased the average number of deliveries by its team of drivers to 30 per hour, up from 10 in 2003.

Delivery data also is uploaded in real time, enabling the retailer to identify where bottlenecks occur. “We had a paper-based system prior to this and were lucky if delivery data got keyed in the same day,” recalls Del Duquette, who manages the workforce management system at Papyrus. “Now we can monitor data in real time and know where drivers are in their routes, which allows us to find out why a bottleneck occurs and take action to correct it or determine if it is merely an exception.”

Customized orders

The success at the store level prompted Papyrus to begin integrating the web-based system into its online order management system in late 2006. Warehouse workers, after scanning work orders containing barcode data that describes the task associated with the work order, can read instructions on the hand-held devices that determine their task, such as picking and packing products to fulfill orders or taking inventory counts.

Papyrus intends to link the application to its order management system for processing of customized orders that are received by fax machine or phone and entered into the order management system manually by contact center agents. And the system ultimately will provide other options for automating data entry for customized orders.

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