Crossing The Finish Line

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Roger Underwood, The Finish Line’s senior VP, information systems, added a new workforce-management solution.

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The economy continues its tailspin, and retailers across the board are feeling the fallout. For The Finish Line, a big challenge that has emerged is how to schedule optimal store-level labor in the wake of erratic and declining customer traffic. An outdated labor-scheduling solution made it even harder for the Indianapolis-based athletic footwear and apparel retailer to plan for the surges in customer traffic.

The Finish Line has eased the problem by transitioning to a centralized workforce-management system integrated with time-and-attendance and payroll systems. With the implementation of the new system, the chain has completed the final stage of a five-year IT overhaul. Also, it is now primed to create labor schedules that coincide with consumer demand, meet budget rules and comply with state labor and minimum-wage requirements.

As with most chains, labor continues to be one of The Finish Line’s largest cost centers. Today’s fragile economy is having an effect on consumer spending, which, in turn, affects labor scheduling.

“Mall traffic is down considerably, and consumer shopping behavior is erratic. This puts more pressure on us to have the optimal staff on hand when the shoppers do enter stores,” said Roger Underwood, senior VP, information systems, The Finish Line, Inc., which operates nearly 700 Finish Line stores in 47 states and 94 stores under the Man Alive banner. “We also feel pressure to manage our work force and stay in compliance with new minimum-wage laws enacted nationwide.”

The chain used a workforce-management system at corporate that created weekly staff schedules based on budgetary rules, legal requirements and operations required at store level.

As corporate sent schedules down to store level, the chain lost visibility to any changes that were made and had no control over the adherence to budgetary and legal requirements, Underwood noted.

“It was not process-oriented and was more manually driven,” he explained. “This made our scheduling processes less than productive, and the disjointed process caused additional pressure when trying to meet tight payroll deadlines.”

The Road Toward Change

These factors were a just a turning point that pushed the retailer finally to make a move to a more integrated solution. The company had spent almost five years transitioning its internal systems to a cohesive architecture based on integrated systems.

The Finish Line made “a number of strategic infrastructure investments, including enhancements to its management, store operations, distribution and information systems,” according to its 2008 annual report.

For example, the chain added a management information system that uses a local area network to link computers at headquarters and store-level PC-based point-of-sale (POS) systems to a perpetual-inventory system. Here, users can review each store’s daily inventory by department, class and SKU, and fulfill orders through other stores.

Human capital management systems have also been front and center in the company’s IT transition. This included a new HR system from Redwood Shores, Calif.-based Oracle’s PeopleSoft; recruitment and hiring management solution from Unicru (which was acquired by Kronos, Chelmsford, Mass.); and a talent management system (including compensation) from Authoria, Waltham, Mass., for processing efficiencies.

The company approached these remediations as a prerequisite to accommodating its multiple store formats and incorporating its newer Man Alive banner. This new IT infrastructure is also capable of handling other potential acquisitions or new concepts that may arise in the future, the report said.

“Our work-force systems were the last pillar we needed to tackle,” Underwood said, noting that the retailer then began searching for new systems to support better store labor management.

Getting on Board 

When Underwood began canvassing the marketplace for a workforce-management solution in December 2007, he said he required that potential solutions “could centralize all labor data at corporate  and give us more control over [employee] scheduling and payroll.”

For The Finish Line, RedPrairie’s Workforce Management’s solution rose above its competition. The solution’s time-and-attendance, accruals, forecasting and optimized labor-scheduling modules are displayed in an intuitive, user-friendly interface.

The Finish Line began implementing the time-and-attendance labor-management and the advanced-scheduling modules in March 2008, requiring programming at corporate to integrate the solution.

The most significant change for The Finish Line was transitioning to centralized information.

“It required us to program a lot of near-real-time messaging that could pass code back and forth and communicate that information with our onboard hiring software from Unicru and PeopleSoft for HR and accounting,” Underwood said. “Integration was challenging, but we made it happen.”

All programming was finally squared away, and by March 2008  implementation began. By September, the first store went live with the new solution.

The chain has traded in bulky, disparate time clocks for a streamlined solution that manages workflow directly through an online portal accessible at POS.

All store employees, from cashiers and stockroom associates to sales team members and managers, sign into their shift through POS terminals. Using a touchscreen interface integrated within POS, employees can easily access the time clock and schedule.

Meanwhile, managers can use POS or a store-level computer to access the portal, analyze business forecasts and use the solution’s algorithms to create schedules that meet budgetary rules, employees’ personal and legal requirements, and still meet consumer demand and improve workflow. They are also able to use the solution to record employee performance metrics.

“The solution creates the most cost-efficient schedule based on the solution’s pre-configured rules, including criteria such as federal and local labor laws,” said Jon Lawrence, Red Prairie’s VP, product marketing.

The Finish Line began rolling out the solution to the entire enterprise in early November, and the retailer continues to receive positive feedback from managers. “They often tell us how much easier it is to create schedules, and we are pleased by their adoption of the solution,” Underwood reported.

The biggest benefit, which Underwood is anticipating, could revolve around merging labor with consumer demand, especially as store traffic remains erratic.

“Labor as a percentage of sales can be a key metric that managers use to make decisions as to whether to send employees home early or cancel the shift,” he said.

By integrating real-time POS sales information into the workforce- management solution, The Finish Line will empower managers to make better decisions that save on labor but don’t sacrifice customer service.

Also on the agenda for this year is the integration of RedPrairie’s task management module. The Finish Line is partnering with the vendor on providing further integration capabilities between the workforce management and task management systems.

“We are still early in the process, but we look forward to when we can use the solution to schedule and deliver a task list to employees as they check into a shift,” Underwood said.

When this happens, corporate will have a better way to monitor store-level operations, such as window changes and assortment resets.

“We can account for the time it takes them to accomplish assignments and track when each task is complete,” he added.