Online Shopping Pushes Retailers to 'Flex' Time

By Moore, Daniel | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), November 28, 2017 | Go to article overview

Online Shopping Pushes Retailers to 'Flex' Time


Moore, Daniel, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


In the heart of an isolated Pittsburgh industrial park, beside a little-used highway and an expanse of urban prairie, global retail giants are going head to head.

From a single building in an industrial park in Fairywood, both Amazon and Walmart are targeting the steep, challenging streets of Pittsburgh in a war for the future of online retail and package delivery - a world where anything can be bought online and delivered at any time.

In part, the task boils down to a workforce dilemma: how to recruit, retain and manage employees along the supply chain to respond to real-time demand for products.

The two giant retailers have taken different approaches, but the sell to workers is the same: more flexibility, better hours and technology.

Since 2015, Amazon has been here testing its Amazon Flex delivery service - in which people in their own cars deliver packages from the Fairywood fulfillment center.

Walmart, under pressure from Amazon, also has been adjusting its staffing and delivery techniques - and bringing technology onto the brick-and-mortar sales floor in ways it never has before.

Taken together, the moves by the two companies could signal big changes for the future of retail jobs - and a workforce that numbers roughly 125,000 people in the Pittsburgh metro area.

New skills, clearer path

Online shopping, aside from eating away at sales at brick-and-mortar stores, has pressured retailers to change their relationship with their employees to survive. With unemployment falling and the retail workforce in high demand, companies have voluntarily raised their minimum wages and started offering better benefits to lure and retain workers.

One way to lure workers is to offer a clearer path within one company. Last year, Walmart, the nation's largest private employer with 1.2 million workers, rolled out a job training initiative on a scale not seen in recent memory.

Technology isn't replacing the company's brick-and-mortar stores in this case, but it is helping in teaching the staff to manage them better.

At about 200 regional training centers that it is building across the country, Walmart is using a suite of company-developed apps to manage inventory, schedules and other store operations, as well as using virtual reality scenarios to immerse its trainees in sticky situations.

"What do you guys think about that counter presentation?" Tony Soltis, store manager at the Walmart Supercenter in Harrison, asked a classroom of department managers recently who were in their fifth and final week of training.

The screen showed a video feed from a Walmart store on Black Friday last year - a chaotic scene that a trainee was viewing through a virtual reality headset. A child runs wildly down an aisle. A woman argues with an associate. A police officer stands alert in a sea of shoppers.

One employee described a sales counter in the scene. "It's a cluttered mess."

"What kind of takeaways would you have when you go back to your own store?" Mr. Soltis asked.

"Clean as you go," the employee responded.

At the 3,500-square-foot addition to the Harrison store that houses the Pittsburgh region's Walmart Academy, as many as 90 employees can shuffle through in a week.

In all, the region has 27 Walmart stores with 8,200 employees. Walmart believes that immersive experiences and carrying tablets on the sales floor make operations more efficient for employees and customers - and make its stores more competitive with online shopping.

Employees said the changes help give more people training and offer a clear career path within the company. Mr. Soltis, along with other officials teaching new skills, started with Walmart and worked their way up.

"If your people feel important and empowered, generally you're not going to have a lot of problems with turnover," said Mike Lang, the Walmart trainee who wore the VR headset. …

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Online Shopping Pushes Retailers to 'Flex' Time
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