by Alison Shea/Special to The Shelby Report
I spend a lot of time at the grocery store. I would love to say I’m one of those shoppers who plans my family’s meals for the coming week and buys everything we need in one fell swoop. But the reality is that I shop for groceries at least four times a week. And more often than not, I’m fighting the clock—racing to get home. I usually know what items I want and what aisles they are in, and I’m not a fan of anything that slows me down.
So you can imagine my dismay when I come across one of those aisles that are more like obstacle courses. I may be a bit biased because my work is about minimizing this sort of thing, but anyone who shops for groceries knows what I mean. I’m talking about navigating around stocking clerks, cumbersome dollies, and stacks of boxes. Just recently I was in my neighborhood store when I had to pull my cart over at the top of the aisle and wait for another shopper to make her way through, since there was no way we could pass side by side. There was a cart filled with discarded cardboard, another holding a tote filled with dog treats, and a giant, six-wheeled u-boat filled with cases and bags of dog food. In the midst of it all was a store clerk, precariously balancing a case of Alpo while trying to refill an upper shelf.
It was finally my turn to enter the aisle. As I grabbed my pooch’s favorite biscuits, I said, “Looks like you’re having a busy day.”
“This is nothing,” was the clerk’s response. “On a really busy day I could be here unloading 50 cases or more at a time.”
Holy Moses, that’s a lot of balancing! This guy had his foot up on a lower shelf to balance the case on his knee. He was attempting to hold the case steady with one hand and stock cans with the other.
I remember thinking there has to be a better way. When a process is clearly inconvenient for the customer and uncomfortable for the clerk, shouldn’t that process be re-evaluated?
But that’s only two-thirds of the story. In addition to the important matters of shopper inconvenience and worker discomfort, there’s the issue of productivity. The third stakeholder is the store’s owner/manager, who should be concerned about all of the above.
A very big deal
To cope with the Great Recession, we’re all trying to be more efficient. Sometimes in the retail industry, the time and money we save by changing our tools and practices seems hardly worth it. Say you could save a stocking clerk eight minutes a day; is that a big deal? Don’t answer yet.
Let’s think it through. You wouldn’t want that stocking clerk coming to work eight minutes late every day, because you know that would add up. If you have 10 stocking clerks and you could save each of them 8 minutes a day, that’s 80 minutes a day, which really adds up.
For stocking, significant gains usually start small. You might start with saving a few seconds per case, or decreasing the number of back injuries per year. Things that are barely measurable typically don’t seem substantial if taken on a one-by-one basis. Saving 30 feet or five seconds of walking, for instance, seems insignificant, until you’re doing it 200 times a day.
Think back to improvements that seem routine today but went through growing pains years ago, as all new ideas do. Barcodes and self-checkout stations, for example, have saved tremendous amounts of time and labor and have produced amazing returns on investment, yet we take them for granted now.
So, is it a big deal if you increase one stocking clerk’s production rate and reduce his/her muscle fatigue? Maybe not. But if you increase the production rate of all your stockers, making your whole operation faster, easier and safer, it becomes a very big deal.
Training and tools
Training your employees so that safe and productive stocking practices become habitual is imperative to keeping injuries and spills minimized and goods (especially foods) rotated so that newest containers are at the back of the shelf. Let’s face it: Stocking isn’t rocket science. It is simply a matter of putting that jar of sauce or can of beans on a shelf, right? As simple as this sounds, there are right ways and wrong ways of doing it.
Training can be daunting. In addition to taking up valuable time on the part of trainer and trainee, in some businesses it entails red tape. By the way, the more discomfort your employees have to endure, the higher your turnover rate. The higher your turnover rate, the more time you have to spend hiring and training new employees. (I don’t need to say time is money, do I?)
Now, what sort of training are you providing for your stockers, and what tools are you giving them to do the job? Yes, this is what I’ve been leading up to. At the risk of sounding too much like I’m in sales, which I am, I’ll try not to use brand names, but there is a new, ergonomic tool on the market. If you are looking to improve efficiency, keep an eye out for a compact cart that keeps cases at the right height, allowing personnel to price and stock goods with two hands, thus maximizing productivity. Better yet, it also minimizes employee injuries and aisle congestion.
At most stores today, the stocker repeatedly lugs heavy cases down the aisle, from a u-boat to a shelf. Or, if allowed, s/he might use a shopping cart to move multiple cases. The common theme is that the employee has to lean down, pick up these cases, and stock their contents on the appropriate shelves. Even with the shopping cart, it’s a bending and reaching effort and, too often, a balancing act.
Ergonomic and elegantly simple
In contrast, the new and elegantly simple stocking cart I’m selling holds case-packed goods at any shelf height and glides down aisles (no power required) to make pricing and stocking faster, safer and easier in supermarkets, pharmacies, convenience stores and other retail outlets. And its compact “footprint” makes stocking during business hours possible without blocking aisles or otherwise inconveniencing shoppers.
The height of the unit’s platform is easily adjusted by any employee. Once the platform is raised or lowered to the most convenient height, the need to bend and stretch is greatly reduced. It can still be used with u-boats or other dollies, but it eliminates the need to carry heavy loads up and down aisles. The platform has handgrips on all four sides for easy maneuverability on smoothly rolling casters. Don’t underestimate the adjustable-height feature. Keeping the case goods at a comfortable level means far less lifting, bending and twisting, and there is no longer a need to balance a case on a knee, a hand or a shelf edge. When stocking becomes less hazardous, injury rates and worker-compensation claims drop. It follows that there is also less droppage/breakage, since users have both hands free.
Alright, here I have to mention the name of my employer’s cart, which is the Stock & Roll. Now I can quote an independent study conducted on three different ergonomic devices for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) by The Ergonomics Center of North Carolina. The study concluded that Stock & Roll carts showed “a reduction in ergonomic risk level,” “a reduction in reported discomfort,” “positive usability feedback by experienced stock clerks” and “a substantial improvement in stocking productivity.” This study and others have shown that the units typically pay for themselves with productivity increases in less than six months (sooner if reduced workers-compensation costs are considered).
OK, class, what have we learned? Productivity, customer convenience and worker safety should be a retailer’s prime concerns. Savings that start small can end big. Though essentially simple, the art of stocking shelves can nevertheless benefit from innovation. An innovative cart makes stocking faster, easier and safer. I’ve got to hit the supermarket again on my way home tonight—wish me luck!