Saturday, March 11, 2017

Modular Madness

I just got off a week of nights.

It hasn't been all that long, really, since I worked solid graveyard shift. I was promoted to Meat Department Manager at the beginning of September; went to Seasonal and Pets at the beginning of December, and than one day in mid-January I got invited into the manager's office and told "all my dreams are coming true".
What they meant by that was a transfer to dairy and frozen. Which, as longtime readers will know, is what I've been doing since 2001.

This was not a dream come true for me, much less all of them. Don't get me wrong: I like the position. But it's technically a demotion: just as they are in other chains, dairy and frozen here are a subset of grocery. They're called departments but aren't, really.

I've never understood this. Studies show that most visitors to a grocery store will buy something from dairy and/or frozen, and Walmart is just like a grocery store in that regard. I move a lot of product.
It probably has something to do with margins. Grocery in general and dairy in particular do NOT make a store any appreciable amount of money. The staples and sale items are loss leaders almost without exception. You would be stunned at how much money grocery stores lose on 4L of milk...and Walmart sets the retails for everyone else.

Because dairy and frozen do not constitute a "real" department,  I would no longer be a "real" department manager. Which meant my hours would not be guaranteed. And I balked at this. I had already lost my $1/hr night premium coming to days (worth the sacrifice in terms of my quality of life, in my estimation)...but I couldn't afford the risk of losing more money.

I got them to guarantee my hours in writing, with the caveat that company-wide changes could disrupt anything and everything. And since then I've been motoring along, gradually improving things (I inherited a mess).

Until the mods dropped.

Walmart is its own world. It has its own language. Use industry-standard terms for everyday things in a Walmart store and you'll get blank looks. A power jack is a "walkie" at Walmart; backroom shelves are called "bins"; head office is "home" office, employees are "associates", and on and on and on. Planograms -- the schematics that detail what goes where -- are called "modulars" in Walmartese, "mods" for short.

The larger stores, especially those in the U.S., have a modular team (which really ought to be called the "Mod Squad", but isn't). Their sole responsibility is to ensure the planograms are in compliance. This is critically important in a Walmart, much more so than in some other chains. At Price Chopper, yes, there were planograms, but they were created by people with no experience or understanding of what actually sold in our store. And so if I could justify changing something, I had the freedom to do it. Sobeys was more rigid, to be sure. But Walmart is a different animal entirely.

It's rigid and regimented. There is a numbered position for every single sku. The numbers go in order, shelf by shelf and section by section. This has numerous time-saving benefits. Any employee (sorry, associate), no matter what department she normally works in, can easily find any item in any other department. When she does price changes, the labels come out in order, so she doesn't have to waste time matching the label to the product. And most importantly, the shelf capacities are also programmed in, and so as long as you've got data integrity, the system knows exactly when something needs to be stocked...and it will tell you what to stock and where you'll find it in the cooler, freezer or backroom to within  three square feet.  It's pretty damned impressive, if you're easily impressed like I am.

If you've ever wondered why you just get used to shopping a store only to have everything move around on you--there are lots of reasons.  The biggest is change for change's sake. People shop on autopilot. It's incredible to what degree people shop on autopilot. Consider this three-shelf endcap of tubs of yogurt on sale:


STRAWBERRY  <-----eye level="" p="">

Which one will sell most? That's right, strawberry, with vanilla a close second and peach a distant, distant third.  (That mirrors the sales patterns when the yogurt is not discounted, which is why I would build the display that way.)

Except one time, just for shits and giggles, I did it like this:


PEACH       <-----eye level="" p="">

And the peach yogurt sales went through the roof. Peach actually outsold vanilla and damned near outsold strawberry. 

I was flabbergasted. It seems a huge number of people don't care what flavour of yogurt they buy so long as it's easy to reach.

Even if you do care what brand and flavour you buy, you generally shop without really looking after awhile, and so stores like to switch it up and force you to actually engage. Add in new products and deletions (usually but not always due to poor sales), as well as companies constantly jockeying for greater visibility, and you can see why the planograms -- the modulars change.

Relines--"new mods" in Walmart-speak--are  never fun. And I had five of them drop at once, comprising most of my frozen department:

  • 5 doors of fries and hash browns
  • 3 doors of "naturals" -- gluten-free and organic frozen products
  • 13 doors of ice cream
  • 14 doors of entrées
  • a whopping 22 doors of pizza.
I'd done a four-door breakfast reline the week prior. Took two of us two hours to do. The rest of these buggers were considerably more demanding, and it's MUCH easier to do frozen relines at night, when there are no customers to drag you away.

Relines are a simpler proposition at Walmart thanks to that rigid, regimented system I outlined above. You print the modular, then you print the labels for that modular...which come out, handily, in order, door by door, which each door a section and each section noted. Go out to the floor, tape each sheet of your mod to a door,
strip one door into shopping carts, pull the old labels, and put the new ones up according to the mod. Then fill. And repeat. Dead simple...but tedious, especially you get to entrées and a single door might have four or five hundred units in it. 

I got ice cream done on Sunday night. Which surprised me, because I wasted the first hundred minutes doing the mod wrong. I had thought the entire section was flipping--door 1 becomes door 13, 2 becomes 12, and so on...and I'd flipped 1 and 13 before I realized that no, door 1 was staying door 1 and GRRRRRR.

The first thing I did Monday night was fix the shelves I'd installed crookedly the night before. I'm terrible for that: I'll look at something and think it's level, when to anyone else it CLEARLY isn't. GRRRRRR again. Then I did potatoes and naturals.

Tuesday was pizza night, and I didn't think I could possibly get 22 doors done in seven hours. But by that point I had a real rhythm going, and somehow...I'm still not sure exactly how...I finished the job with ten minutes to spare.

Then came the night I was dreading: entrées. Only 14 doors, not 22, but each door had six shelves in it and each shelf was GROANING with product. That mod alone was supposed to take 30 hours to do.

I taped up the first half of the mod. Seven doors. And I honestly had doubts, before starting, that I'd be able to get that much done.

But the saving grace of the entrée doors was that nothing overlapped at all. Each door was a section distinct unto itself. I stripped the first door and realized that door five was moving, pretty much as is, into that space...which left door five empty, and it turned out door 3 was moving there, and it became a game of hopscotch.

I figured I had to get a little less than two doors done in each two hour segment of my shift to be on track. At 1:00 a.m. I had just about finished the fourth door, and I'd started to think I might actually complete the entire mod in one night, not two.

And I did. I was more proud of that than I had been of the pizzas. Those pizzas only had four shelves per door and the packages were much larger. THIRTY HOURS, done in less than seven. It's not often I shock  a store manager. I managed it with this.

I had originally arranged to work three nights, until the scale of the task became apparent; I was told to work five, take Friday off, and work days Saturday (today) through Monday. Having completed my mods in four nights, I decided I'd still work the Thursday night, only stocking freight à la nights of yore. Wednesday night's frozen/dairy truck showing up midmorning on Thursday had a lot to do with that.

Yesterday I stayed up all day, the better to actually sleep at night like a normal human being. (Thanks, Kathy, for chatting with me at intervals and keeping me awake.) I slept last night like something dead. And I'm still pretty tired. But the mods are done. For at least six months. And I've decided to christen myself...

..the mod god.

1 comment:

O YA said...

Proud of ewe Macaw, back in your element