I stopped by the WalMart on Route 4 in East Greenbush, a suburb of Albany, NY, tonight to pick up some Sahlen's ham for lunch sandwiches.

I usually buy Sahlen's when it's on sale at Hannaford, when it's not, like now, the WalMart price is $1.50 less a pound.

Normally there's a short line at the deli counter, and one or two people cutting meats and cheeses. Not so tonight, there was no one there.

There was one person serving customers at the nearby hot prepared foods counter, she said she would take care of me after she had dealt with the three or so customers who were there before me.

Fair enough, and not her fault at all, but I have never seen a supermarket deli unmanned around here, and went to find a manager to complain about that.

More below.

Looking around near the front of the store, I found a "customer service manager," who explained that there was no one at the deli counter because some "kids" did not show up for work tonight.

It snowed a couple inches today, and it's a school holiday week, so maybe that's why a few "kids" didn't work their assigned shifts tonight.

But IMHO it's far more likely that the unmanned deli counter was a bit part of WalMart's growing customer service problem -- due to a deliberate profit-maximizing strategy of understaffing their stores that may be backfiring.

A Wall Street research firm recently downgraded WalMart in part because the company's chronic understaffing will certainly affect sales.

While cutting fixed costs, like the number of employees, as an attempt to get more from less can work for some businesses, the researchers note that this isn’t having a good impact for the company.

“Walmart U.S.’s relentless focus on costs does seem to have taken some toll on in-store conditions and stock levels,” the note says in regards to understaffing. “[O]ur store visits over the last six months show a repeating pattern of stocking issues in many departments in the store.”

When products aren’t on the shelves, that means Walmart can’t sell them, depressing overall sales. And if the shelves are empty and the lines are long, there may not be a reason for consumers to frequent the stores.

Indeed. For example, I was not willing to wait 10-20 minutes to buy a pound of deli ham tonight.

Gawker has been doing a series based on anonymous input from WalMart workers. This one about how managers' bonuses are based on understaffing is apropos here:

How come every time I come into Wal-Mart, there's never anyone around to help me?

Excellent question! The reason there's nobody to help you is because our salaried management team decided to cut hours and staff.

Why did they decide to cut hours and staff if you are here now and needing help, you ask? Well, even though the company is worth billions, home office gives store managers a set amount of hours and payroll dollars that they can schedule people/pay people in each area of the store, and it is based on what the sales were in that department on that day the previous fiscal year.

So even though last year was a Friday, it was snowing out, and no one was shopping, this year, on a Saturday, when its sunny out and everyone is shopping, you won't have anyone around to help you because LAST YEAR we didn't make enough money!

Add to that the fact that store manager's and assistant manager's incentive bonuses (to the tune of $80K for store managers and $20K for assistant managers, once yearly) are partially determined by how much they can bring scheduled hours/payroll DOWN from the year before (of course, while still keeping sales up,) and you begin to see how this pattern of never having any help around comes to be.

The "customer service manager" said there was nothing she could do about the unmanned deli counter tonight, and I believe her.

The "kids" may have called in, and her bosses decided not to try to get someone else in to man the deli counter, based on evening deli sales on Feb. 19, 2013.

I know that many people here do not patronize WalMart for ideological reasons, but I do not believe that, overall, that has much impact on WalMart sales.

OTOH, intentionally lousy customer service, like what I experienced tonight, is so penny-wise-pound-foolish that it will seriously damage WalMart's brand and its standing as the country's pre-eminent retailer.


Originally posted to devtob on Wed Feb 19, 2014 at 06:04 PM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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