When beauty meets brains

Workforce optimization is now in fashion with retailers, and Holt Renfrew is a glamorous model showcasing its benefits.

The Toronto-based luxury retailer is implementing Workbrain Corp.'s integrated suite of workforce management software modules in an effort to enhance customer service levels and reduce operating costs.

Started as a beaver-fur hat shop in Qu├ębec City, Holt Renfrew has grown over the years into a national specialty chain with nine stores across Canada catering to the high-end market for designer brands, cosmetics and fragrances.

Customer satisfaction is critical in the demanding luxury market, and superior service is in turn linked with employee satisfaction. But Holt Renfrew's time and attendance tracking was a manual system rife with delays and inefficiencies. The upshot was in inaccuracies and time lags in sales associates' paychecks, scheduling snafus and stress in the payroll department, says Anne Hodkin, director of IT.

Improving employee satisfaction was a major driver. "A happy employee relates that happiness to customers, and vice-versa for unhappy ones," says Hodkin, although she is not comfortable with attempts to correlate such intangibles directly to increased sales.

Holt Renfrew needed a system that would improve operations by scheduling the right sales associate at the right time in the right merchandise area; it was also important that the new system integrate well with Hold Renfrew's existing biometric sign-in application.

The retailer replaced what was essentially an honors system for tracking staff comings and goings with a fingerprint-based biometric system. The system does not image or store them but rather generates an algorithm based on points on a fingerprint.

Interestingly, staff response was overwhelmingly positive, says Hodkin, in spite of common wisdom that people dislike this biometric because of its criminal associations. "Our employees loved it, because you're only accountable for yourself," she says, pointing out many staff felt compelled to cover up for their teammate's true comings and goings in the past.

Hodkin wanted to avoid replacing it with an automated time-card process. In addition, she wanted a Web-based system that could be integrated and administered from Holt Renfrew's corporate headquarters. This would ensure consistency in the way HR rules were applied across all its stores, and would also avoid any need to implement extra hardware at its stores and the inevitable disruptions and training associated with that.

Toronto-based Workbrain's solution was selected as it satisfied Holt Renfrew's business and system requirements.

The vendor's suite is comprised of four software modules that have been customized for the retail sector: time and attendance, scheduling, workforce planning, and Workbrain intelligence. The software can run on most major platforms such as IBM and Microsoft, and integrates with ERP systems.

Workbrain's system provides a lot of the fine detail that retailers need but major ERP systems don't provide, says John Orr, director of retail solutions at Workbrain. The workforce planning module, for example, tracks labor budgets to annual and long-term plans, and can drill down by store and week.

"Large ERP systems have missed the mark on this," he says. "There are eight different types of labor that you need to budget for, and a lot of these systems just do thumbnails."

There is a range of non-volume work to plan and budget, he explains, such as cleaning, maintenance, administrative support and quarterly inventory counts, in addition to scheduling the right sales staff to accommodate customer traffic peaks.

Holt Renfrew decided to implement Workbrain's time and attendance module first in spring 2005 to ensure its staff was comfortable with it, and then phase in the implementation of the other three modules.

Workbrain tackled the biometric requirement by writing an applet that integrated the fingerprint readers with their system. Results of the first phase were good, and Hodkin plans to roll it out to Holt Renfrew's distribution centers.

The retailer is in the process of implementing the scheduling and intelligence modules. A phased, modular approach is critical in the retail sector, says Hodkin, as the IT department must avoid implementations during "black-out" revenue peak periods such as Christmas and summer. "Sales are volatile and we need that flexibility," she says. "We don't want to jeopardize money-making periods of the year."

System issues of implementing the scheduling module will be minor, says Hodkin; rather, it's change management that will be a challenge, as staff opinions about scheduling may differ from the system's.

Overall, the Workbrain implementation has run into few snags, all minor, says Hodkin. "This is one of the smoothest projects I've ever done."

The retailer has already seen tangible results. "Our per cent of sales to salary costs are down, and we've seen tangible reductions in salary pay," says Hodkin. "But we can't say we saved x in payroll, as we've channeled those hours into putting more people on the floor and used saved hours for training."

Hodkin is wary of direct correlations between increased sales and systems implementations. "In the retail sector, you can never say that better sales are the results of the systems we put in. All the systems in the world won't help if you don't have the right merchandise."

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