KAI RYSSDAL: Whether you go to Wal-Mart to get a loan or to buy a box of lightbulbs, you know what happens sometimes. You get to the checkout counter only to be met with long lines and half the registers closed. To be fair, that happens in many places, not jusst Wal-Mart. But Wal-Mart's by far the biggest company to try to fix it. They're using something called labor optimization software. But Ashley Milne-Tyte reports it's not really optimized for labor.
ASHLEY MILNE-TYTE: Wal-Mart is rolling out a staff scheduling system to help cut those checkout lines.
It puts more employees in stores when there are more customers, and schedules fewer workers when shoppers are sparse. Nikki Baird is with Retail Systems Alert Group. She says retailers now have access to software that provides a minute level of detail about customer traffic. And it's something they can use to their advantage.
NIKKI BAIRD: Being able to take all of the point-of-sale transaction data, and match it against foot traffic, and forecast that into the future to be able to design shifts for when workers actually need to be in the store.
Wal-Mart critics say the company's new computer-based scheduling system may be a boon for customers, but not necessarily for staff. Some have even called it Orwellian, saying the system forces workers into random shifts, regardless of family commitments. Celia Swanson is Wal-Mart's senior vice president for change management. She says Wal-Mart designed the system with employees' needs in mind. First, the company asks them when they prefer to work, then when they're available.
CELIA SWANSON: And then the system builds that schedule, to first take into consideration their preference, then their tenure and then their work status.
Those who enter the widest window of available hours tend to get the best shifts. Michael works weekends at a Wal-Mart in Florida. He has a blog called "behind the counter". He doesn't use his real name, fearing dismissal. He says at his store, the new scheduling system isn't working well for part-timers like him who hold more than one job, and so have more limited availabilitya€¦
MICHAEL: A lot of people were really unhappy with the number of hours that they were given. Instead of giving me an eight-hour shift on Saturday and an eight-hour shift on Sunday, it gave me one four-hour shift on Sunday.
He says the system tends to assign fewer hours than part-timers are used to working. Michael says his manager tinkered with the schedule to bump his hours back up. He was relieved because otherwise he'd have lost three quarters of his regular pay. According to Michael, store managers say this month they'll stop amending the schedule by hand and accept whatever shifts the computer churns out, even if that means fewer hours for some. But Wal-Mart's Celia Swanson says that's not company policya€¦
SWANSON: This system is an evolutionary process as I said. They will continue to have that ability to make those modifications.
Some employees seem to love the new system. La Toya Machado is a full-time cashier at a Wal-Mart in Grapevine, Texas. She spoke by phone from the store, with a Wal-Mart executive on the line. Machado says her shifts used to be unpredictable, and planning childcare was tough.
LA TOYA MACHADO: And now since we have the new program, whatever, we made out our own schedule. So my schedule never change. I always know what time I'm gonna get off and I know what time I'm gonna come in.
She says she's always off before her son's soccer practice starts at 6 p.m. Charles Fishman is the author of "The Wal-Mart Effect." He thinks Wal-Mart could dispense with investing in software and invest in employees instead.
CHARLES FISHMAN: What about using the old-fashioned American incentive of money? Why don't you set up a system where people who are willing and able to have flexibility in their work hours get paid a little bit more money for being willing to come and go as the stores need you to?
Wal-Mart says making employees happier and more productive with consistent shifts means they stand a better chance of promotion. Analyst Nikki Baird says retailers want better returns without spending more on staff. And she says having extra employees at peak times means more browsers are converted into buyers. She says some retailers have seen a 6 percent sales increase over last year.
BAIRD: To be able to get that just from implementing labor optimization, that's a pretty significant return.
Now that Wal-Mart's got its system in place, she says, many other retailers are sure to follow.
In New York, I'm Ashley Milne-Tyte for Marketplace.