Maybe Wal-Mart Should Hire Some People

Police man the front of a Walmart store amid heightened Black Friday security in Paramount, California on November 23, 2012 as shoppers arrive and Walmart employees and their supoorters protested nearby

Photo by FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images

This sure is odd. Having shed tons of staff, Wal-Mart finds itself chronically understaffed but seems oddly averse to the natural solution of hiring more people:

Walmart, the nation’s largest retailer and grocer, has cut so many employees that it no longer has enough workers to stock its shelves properly, according to some employees and industry analysts. Internal notes from a March meeting of top Walmart managers show the company grappling with low customer confidence in its produce and poor quality. “Lose Trust,” reads one note, “Don’t have items they are looking for — can’t find it.”

Walmart is addressing the grocery concerns with measures like a new inventory system and signs that will help employees figure out what is fresh and what is not, Jack L. Sinclair, Walmart United States executive vice president for food, said in an interview. Brooke Buchanan, a company spokeswoman, said Walmart felt its stores were fully staffed.

Before the recession, at the start of 2007, Walmart had an average of 338 employees per store at its United States stores and Sam’s Club locations. Now, it has 281 per store, having cut the number of United States employees while adding hundreds of stores.

Read more at the link if you like, but while Stephanie Clifford of the New York Times has lots more details she doesn’t seem to have a real explanation. Last I checked the U.S. unemployment rate was still 7.7 percent so it’s not like Wal-Mart couldn’t possibly find people to staff these positions. Unfortunately in life a lot of bad decisions are driven by a desire to avoid owning up to past bad decisions. Fixing this problem by increasing the number of employees per store would be tantamount to admitting that staff levels had been cut back too far in the past. So management seems to be casting about for some other solution related to signs and inventory systems. But Wal-Mart is a (famously!) low-wage employer and half the virtue of not paying your employees very well is that it’s cheap and easy to add more employees if you need to.