In a randomized, controlled experiment at Gap, researchers Joan C. Williams, Saravanan Kesavan, and Lisa McCorkell sought out the effects of more versus less predictable schedules on the productivity of retail employees and the profitability of stores. “The results,” they write at the Harvard Business Review, “were striking”:
Sales in stores with more stable scheduling increased by 7%, an impressive number in an industry in which companies work hard to achieve increases of 1–2%. Labor productivity increased by 5%, in an industry where productivity grew by only 2.5% per year between 1987 and 2014. Our estimate is that Gap earned $2.9 million as a result of more-stable scheduling during the 35 weeks the experiment was in the field. Given that out-of-pocket expenses were small ($31,200), our data suggest that return on investment was very high. (If stable scheduling were adopted enterprise-wide, transition costs might well entail the costs of upgrading or replacing existing software systems.)
Unlike the typical way of driving sales through increase in traffic, the sales increase from our intervention occurred due to higher conversion rates and basket values made possible through better service from associates.
These findings, the authors underscore, contribute to a growing body of empirical evidence that lean staffing practices, with most employees on part-time, unstable, and on-call schedules, are not the money-savers they are often believed to be. It is indeed feasible for retailers to offer their employees more stable and predictable schedules, they add, but employers often overstate the benefits of an on-call system (reduced labor costs) while ignoring its drawbacks (such as poorer customer service and more management time devoted to scheduling).
This research comes at a time when schedule predictability has emerged as a focal point of labor activism and attracted the attention of regulators. San Francisco became the first major city to mandate predictable scheduling with its “retail workers’ bill of rights” in 2014, while Seattle passed a mandate in 2016 and New York City introduced a fair scheduling law for retail and fast food employees last year. Oregon became the first state to enact such a regulation statewide last summer and other states are mulling laws of their own.