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Stable scheduling in retail is feasible and benefits business and family

Mother working from home holding her child

Contrary to the widely held assumption that schedule instability for employees is an inevitable outcome of the volatile retail business, a new study demonstrates that giving more stability to employees is not only possible. It actually increased both sales and labor productivity, and had a high return on investment.

The “Stable Scheduling Study” reflects a partnership between the interdisciplinary team of Saravanan Kesavan of the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School, Joan C. Williams of the University of California Hastings College of the Law, Susan Lambert of the University of Chicago, School of Social Service Administration, and the Gap, Inc.

“What happens in brick-and-mortar retail matters both to families and to the economy,” the authors write. “Even with increasing e-commerce, brick-and-mortar retail remains a cornerstone of America’s labor market, employing 15 percent of the American workforce.”

Theirs is the first randomized controlled experiment of an intervention designed to shift low-wage, hourly jobs towards more stable schedules. The researchers found:

  • Consistency, predictability and worker input increased.
  • Stable scheduling sharply increased median sales by 7 percent.
  • Stable scheduling also significantly increased labor productivity by 5 percent.
  • Fluctuating customer demand is not the primary source of instability.

The study began with a pretest conducted from March 2015 to October 2015 in three stores in the San Francisco Bay Area. A full pilot, which included 28 stores in the San Francisco and Chicago metropolitan areas, ran from November 2015 to August 2016.

Increased scrutiny

“In recent years, these scheduling practices have come under increasing scrutiny in state attorney general offices, state and local legislatures, and the media,” say the researchers.

They advise employers to take the leap to more stable scheduling in ways that work for their business, given that several cities – San Francisco, Seattle, New York City and Emeryville, California – and one state – Oregon –already have passed scheduling legislation and comparable legislation is pending in at least 13 additional municipalities.

“Continued pressure from legislatures and lawsuits means that the time is right for employers to take the initiative to improve schedule stability in ways that work for them,” they write.

The Stable Scheduling Study was supported by generous grants from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Washington Center for Equitable Growth, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Institute of International Education in collaboration with the Ford Foundation, Center for Popular Democracy, Suzanne M. Nora Johnson and David G. Johnson Foundation and the Gap.

The researchers recognize Gap for a level of commitment that they have not experienced in their cumulative 80-odd years of academic research: “Gap has shown true leadership in participating in a randomized controlled experiment of a shift to more stable schedules in sales associate jobs. Gap faces challenges that are common among retailers. What sets Gap apart is its unflinching willingness to respond to these common challenges with data.”