They may not be customer facing but warehouse staff are as important as store staff and should be treated as such – particularly during peak Christmas trading, says Liz Morrell.

Retailers invest much time, money and effort managing, motivating and developing their store staff – the front line of their business.

But just as important is the backbone, the retailer’s distribution centres, and it is here where all too often staff can get forgotten.

But retailers do so at their peril. Poor management within a store will only affect one store, but poor management within a warehouse site could impact many, if not all of your portfolio, and have a devastating effect on your key pre-Christmas trading period.

“It is a neglected area. The effort expended on developing warehouse management is not proportionate to the importance of the warehouse as a business,” says Nick Weetman, director of supply chain consultancy Davies & Robson.

Sometimes it is to do with structure. “In the past it has been a vertical way of managing people. You have a number of people that manage the stores and at the warehouse there is one warehouse manager that tries to manage all the stores as well as the warehouse,” says Martin Elliott, UK sales manager for warehouse solutions integrator Savoye Logistics.

In-house logistics operations tend to either be very good because they truly feel a part of the business, or very bad because head office management see the warehouse as secondary to stores and staff have simply drifted their way into senior roles. “We see a lot of warehouse management where people have just been promoted and don’t really understand how to run warehouses,” says Weetman. “Those that do have it in-house need to understand it’s a critical part, and retail is just the end of the supply chain,” he says.

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In contrast, third-party logistics operators tend to work harder on all aspects of staff management simply because for them it is their core business. Les Flanagan, managing director of retail operations for third-party logistics provider Wincanton, says his company invests heavily in motivating and training its people. “We spend a lot of time talking to people and bringing those people with us along the way,” he says.

Training is essential to allow staff to develop from what at the bottom rung of the ladder can be very basic roles. At Argos the retailer has invested £450,000 in education within its distribution centres in the past three years with onsite education facilities and offers progression throughout the business. “We offer opportunities for progression right through the organisation and management structure. Many of our senior managers have come from the shopfloor,” says Argos distribution director Catherine McDermott.

Accenture UK head of fulfilment practice Jolyon Austin suggests cross training employees so warehouse staff can work in a number of disciplines. “This can enrich the work experience and provide a sense of progression. Provide opportunities to work in the inventory team as this helps the team understand the impact of putting away an item in the wrong place and it will help foster a
one-team approach,” says Austin.

Effective training also helps engage staff and should be an ongoing process. “Managing and motivating our distribution colleagues is a key priority and something we are always trying to do better,” says McDermott. She says effective two-way communication is an important enabler for this. “We aim to have regular discussions with colleagues on their own and their team’s performance as well as business information on Argos as a whole. We have communication champions at each site who help link the sites to the centre,” she says.

Effective communication is particularly important for third-party logistics providers whose staff need to be made to feel part of both the retailer’s identity and the logistics provider’s. “You train staff on more than just warehouse skills but also what the retailer does and who the customer is,” says Flanagan.

But it’s important not to overwhelm them. Peter Fuller, business unit director at third-party logistics provider Norbert Dentressangle, says his company filters the information for clients such as Asda and M&S. “If you went around an Norbert Dentressangle site for M&S, some of the noticeboards will have Norbert Dentressangle and M&S branding, and branded M&S posters will be side by side with Norbert Dentressangle updates,” he says.

Gavin Chappell, former supply chain director at Boots, who has just taken up a new role as supply director of Asda, says it is a good approach. “The best depot managers will filter the corporate communication and pass on that which is interesting and relevant,” he says.

Many warehouses also send staff to the stores and vice versa so that each understands their roles. “It shows the effect of what each do has on the stores,” says Kenneth Porter, partner at supply chain consultancy Total Logistics.

“We have store champions within the distribution centres. They will adopt a store and have regular contact with the department heads as well as walk the floor,” says Fuller.

At Boots, Chappell says the process was embedded. “Retailers need to help warehouse colleagues understand that they are there to service shops. Warehouse colleagues need to realise that they are really just the store’s backroom staff and what they do each and every day affects what customers see on shelf.

“At Boots we set up a three-day induction programme for colleagues joining the warehouse, the highlight of which was a day’s stint working in store, seeing a delivery being made and working the stock to shelf. It really helped colleagues connect what they do to the store,” says Chappell.

A similar initiative can also work within the warehouse itself to break down the barrier between management and more junior staff.

Chilled distribution specialist NFT runs a distribution centre in St Albans for Sainsbury’s. Depot general manager Andy De Vere says his staff practise “Walk & Talk” – where a senior manager swaps roles with an operative – regularly. “Any improvement to the operation is highlighted and implemented if it’s felt it would help. This is an effective way for warehouse operatives to feel that senior management recognise what they do,” he says.

But creating a good culture is also about making it a fun place to work. At Wincanton many of its sites have learning centres and gyms with the advantage of creating additional bonds between staff. Chappell says the social side is often overlooked. “Because we focus on productivity we forget the human element and human needs. Retailers that invest in communication, training development and the social side of work get higher productivity and a happier workforce,” he says.

In the run-up to Christmas, having engaged, productive staff is more important than ever.

“Employee costs are the single biggest cost element in supply chain,” says Chappell. “Having motivated, engaged individuals working in warehouses is a must if you want to be cost effective. However, it’s also about service. If you need the warehouse to work above and beyond in times of peak or change, would you want a team who is just doing it for the extra overtime or one who is doing it because they want the business to succeed?”

Peacocks logistics director Laurie Hynds says great management of warehouse staff can be achieved. “If you get the culture right and the atmosphere, structure and progression right it’s not that difficult,” he concludes.

Engage warehouse staff

  •             Invest in training for all parts of the workforce – full time and temporary. Produce worker instruction manuals in user-friendly formats and multiple languages if the workforce mix justifies it
  •             Provide a simple process flow map to show the end-to-end supply chain and how each step impacts the final customer so you engage your warehouse staff and make them feel part of the bigger process
  •             Where possible, give your staff an opportunity to see and work through the whole delivery centre process right up to the point of the retail store
  •             Providing clear guidance on what you expect from your staff through visible KPIs
  •         Providing corporate branded items such as clothing creates a sense of belonging, especially for third-party logistics providers
  •         Give third-party logistics provider staff the same staff discount
  •            Building a positive relationship with the third-party logistics provider management team will be passed through to the warehouse shop floor
  •            Ensure communication is simple, clear and concise

Source: Jolyon Austin, UK head of fulfilment practice at Accenture