Hey Walmart, It’s Hard to Make Sales When Store Shelves Are Empty

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Daniel Acker / Bloomberg via Getty Images

One way that Walmart keeps prices low is with minimal staffing levels in stores. But shoppers and workers alike are complaining that Walmart is understaffed, and the results include annoyingly long checkout lines and shelves that are barren—because there’s no one available to restock them.

A new Bloomberg News article lays out the argument that Walmart stores just don’t have enough employees on the job:

In the past five years, the world’s largest retailer added 455 U.S. Wal-Mart stores, a 13 percent increase, according to filings and the company’s website. In the same period, its total U.S. workforce, which includes Sam’s Club employees, dropped by about 20,000, or 1.4 percent.

It’s not surprising that the story features plenty of anecdotal evidence from customers relating their frustrating experiences dealing with Walmart workers, who seem overburdened and/or inept. “You wait 20, 25 minutes for someone to help you, then the person was not trained on mixing paint,” said one customer, a father of six from California who was trying to buy wall paint. “It was like, you have to help them help you.”

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What may be surprising, however, is that Walmart employees feel strongly enough about understaffing that they’re talking to the press about it. “The merchandise is in the store, it just can’t make the jump from the shelf in the back to the one in the front,” a meat and dairy stocker who works at a Walmart in Erie, Pa., said. “There’s not the people to do it.” Other workers say that stores miss out on sales because there aren’t enough employees to answer customer questions and get items out from behind jewelry counters. Walmart workers also claim that store managers get bonuses partly by keeping employee payrolls down.

The story comes one month after another Bloomberg News piece featured the minutes of a Walmart meeting, in which executives reportedly said stores were “getting worse” at restocking shelves, and that “self-inflicted wounds” represented the “biggest risk” to the company.

A few months before that, Reuters reported on a group of Walmart employees claiming that low levels of staffing, as well as subpar wages and unsafe working conditions, have led to chronic long lines and haphazard restocking inside stores. In one instance, a Walmart store supposedly wound up having to throw away 2,000 pounds of Halloween candy because it didn’t make it onto store shelves in time for the holiday. And in the fall of 2011, yet another Bloomberg News story quoted experts who were concerned that Walmart stores were understaffed to the point that it was hurting sales:

“You cannot keep cutting labor hours and expect the shelves to get filled, especially when you have more products to be replenished,” Colin McGranahan, an analyst with Sanford C. Bernstein in New York, said in an interview. “Store-level execution is coming down. There are only a few ways to cut corners without unintended repercussions, and that’s what is happening at Wal-Mart.”

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Walmart denies that it’s stores are understaffed, and that it has problems getting merchandise onto shelves. “Our in stock levels are up significantly in the last few years, so the premise of this story, which is based on the comments of a handful of people, is inaccurate and not representative of what is happening in our stores across the country,” company spokesperson Brooke Buchanan said in a statement released to Bloomberg. “Two-thirds of Americans shop in our stores each month because they know they can find the products they are looking for at low prices.”