Barbara Gertz is 25 and works at a Walmart in Aurora, Colorado, stocking shelves on the overnight shift. She and her husband, a cement mason, can get by most months, but there have been days Barbara has called in sick because she can’t afford the gas to drive to work.
Higher wages would obviously benefit Barbara and her colleagues at Walmart who protested last Friday. They would also benefit fast food workers striking tomorrow in 100 cities across the country who earn, on average, $11,000 a year.
But according to Zeynep Ton, an adjunct professor at MIT Sloan School of Management, higher wages are better for companies, too.
Ton’s book, The Good Jobs Strategy: How the Smartest Companies Invest in Employees to Lower Costs and Boost Profits, comes out in January and in it, she describes how large retail companies like Mercadona, Trader Joe’s and Costco have been able to invest in workers without raising prices. “These companies think about employees not as costs to minimize but as capable human beings with the potential to generate sales and profits,” Ton recently wrote on her blog. “Doesn’t all this cost a lot? Of course it does. But that’s only part of the strategy. These companies also design and manage work in a way that makes their employees more productive and takes full advantage of a committed, motivated, and capable (that is, well-paid, well-trained, and well-treated) workforce.”
Here’s one of Ton’s favorite examples of why the so-called Good Jobs Strategy works: During the recession, both Walmart and Mercadona, Spain’s largest supermarket chain, had to cut costs and did so by reducing the variety of products they carried. Walmart customers were annoyed when their local store stopped carrying their favorite brand of potato chip, or toilet paper or T-shirt. Sales dropped; Walmart’s chief merchandising officer had to leave the company. At Mercadona, customers were unfazed if an item they wanted was out of stock because workers, who as a matter of company policy are trained in every department, were able to recommend a replacement. Sales figures increased, even after Mercadona reduced its prices by 10 percent. Workers would let management know if there was a particular product that too many customers seemed to miss. “They could do this because they are empowered, cross-trained and have the time to engage the customer,” Ton writes. By comparison, Barbara told me that “there’s just a total lack of respect” for associates at Walmart. She mentioned a friend who politely pointed out an inventory problem to her supervisor and was fired the next day for the very mistake she tried to correct.