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Whole Foods Is Datafying Its Employees to Death

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Whole Foods stores have experienced rampant customer complaints as shelves sit empty following the rollout of a digital inventory system that’s intended to improve efficiency. A new report highlights how the system is also efficiently causing employees to break down, get fired, and seek employment elsewhere.

Order-to-shelf, or OTS, is actually a fairly old inventory management system that’s found new interest from retailers in the current business landscape. Fangruo Chen, a professor at the Columbia Business School, told Supermarket News last month that OTS has primarily served manufacturers who allow their vendors to manage the business of maintaining the supply of inventory. But big retailers like the Amazon-owned Whole Foods and Target have been incorporating the system so that suppliers deliver small batches of product, with little inventory being kept on hand.


In addition to the operational issues that have followed, the integration of the system is coming at a cost of workers sanity as they are subjected to an elaborate and confusing scoring system that sounds like bureaucratic hell—or, you know, like working for Amazon. Business Insider spoke with 27 current and former Whole Foods employees about how the system is causing chaos at the high-end grocery outlet. From the report:

They say many employees are terrified of losing their jobs under the new system and that they spend more hours mired in OTS-related paperwork than helping customers. Some are so fed up with the new system that they have quit or are looking for other jobs[...]

“The OTS program is leading to sackings up and down the chain in our region,” said an employee of a Georgia Whole Foods. “We’ve lost team leaders, store team leaders, executive coordinators and even a regional vice president. Many of them have left because they consider OTS to be absurd. As an example, store team leaders are required to complete a 108-point checklist for OTS.”


“I wake up in the middle of the night from nightmares about maps and inventory, and when regional leadership is going to come in and see one thing wrong, and fail the team,” a supervisor at a West Coast Whole Foods said. “The stress has created such a tense working environment. Seeing someone cry at work is becoming normal.”


Gizmodo has requested comment from Amazon about this story, but we have not received reply.

The employees that Business Insider spoke with on the condition of anonymity focused their ire on a lack of training, recent labor cuts, and a brutal scorecard system that’s used to evaluate worker’s performance.

Employees are reportedly required to maintain a 108-point checklist of requirements in their department. Supervisors use a 17-point scorecard to evaluate a worker’s area twice a week. Corporate employees come to the store to walk through with a scorecard once a month. And execs from Whole Foods headquarters periodically come through to do their own scoring. An item that is found to be just an inch off from its intended position receives a demerit, and any score below 89.9 percent is considered failing and qualifies the employee for termination.

This ruthless treatment of workers sounds like Amazon being Amazon, but its worth noting that the OTS system was actually announced by Whole Foods’ CEO John Mackey in February of last year. At the time, Whole Foods executive vice president of operations David Lannon told investors on an earnings call “the team members are really excited about.”


Still, Amazon bought Whole Foods in June and now it owns the problems that crop up. “We all just hope that Amazon will walk into some stores and see all the holes on the shelf,” one employee who’s been with the company for more than a decade told Business Insider. Unfortunately, this micro-managed approach to labor falls squarely in the pattern of treating humans like machines that has marked Amazon’s business practices for years. Undercover reports by journalists posing as warehouse workers have revealed long hours and aging workers desperately trying to hang on to their jobs by meeting absurd quotas that leave little time to breathe. Employees are encouraged to spy on one another and are rewarded with monetary bonuses for reporting any rule violations. A Mother Jones reporter was warned by a co-worker that she’d be fired if she cried after being mistreated. And a strict point system is used to keep workers hanging by a thread.

Amazon’s delivery drivers have experienced similar conditions according to separate undercover reports. Drivers are said to constantly exceed the speed limit to meet quotas and finish their routes on time. Many reportedly used the bathroom in the van. In the case of one driver, they just pooped right on a customer’s driveway and wiped with some Amazon business cards.


Jeff Bezos is unlikely to save these beleaguered workers from their misery. He’s more likely to strap movement-tracking wristband on their arms to gather more data on how lazy they’re being and jack up the quotas. With all its success, we have little evidence that Amazon is all that great at efficiency, we only know that it’s good at reinvesting all of its money so that it can become bigger and more powerful than anyone can compete with.

The online retailer’s food delivery service Amazon Fresh is considered a failure, and the Whole Foods acquisition is perceived as a do-over. Amazon doesn’t know the brick-and-mortar business, it knows tech. Which would explain why it’s so anal about the perfect positioning of items and 108-point checklists. That kind of attention to stocking detail will be necessary as it rolls out stores that have few to no employees whatsoever. The best hope Amazon has to offer Whole Foods employees is that it’ll put them out of their misery. Unfortunately, every big business wants to be like Amazon these days.


[Business Insider]