September 28, 2017

The cost of multitasking in retail



We’re all busy. It’s a reality of modern life, one that retailers see in their customers every day. How many times does a shopper approach the register while on a phone call or walk around the store with their face buried in a phone? Multitasking makes us feel like we’re getting more done – instead of just shopping, these customers are shopping, catching up with Mom, listening in on a conference call, refilling a prescription or responding to email. All at once! That must be more productive, right?


Well — wrong. Science has told us time and time again that multitasking and task-switching are some of the least efficient uses of our time — they’re hurting our brains, causing us to make mistakes and costing our companies money.


According to Psychology Today, task-switching is expensive in more ways than one:

  • It takes more time to get tasks completed if you switch between them than if you do them one at a time.
  • You make more errors when you switch than if you do one task at a time.
  • If the tasks are complex, then these time and error penalties increase.
  • Each task switch might waste only 1/10th of a second, but if you do a lot of switching in a day it can add up to a loss of 40 percent of your productivity.


Even if multitaskers “feel like they’re getting more done, they’re working at a much lower cognitive level and costing companies billions of dollars in lost productivity,” says Fast Company.


Sophie Leroy, a professor at the University of Minnesota, told Fast Company that “people need to stop thinking about one task in order to fully transition their attention and perform well on another. Yet, results indicate it is difficult for people to transition their attention away from an unfinished task, and their subsequent task performance suffers.”


When people want to get back to that unfinished task, it’s not exactly snappy. Gloria Mark, lead of a study from the University of California Irvine, reported that it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to return to a task.


Retailers – at the store and corporate levels – are just as guilty of these behaviors as anyone else. If you’re in a management position, you might think having familiarized yourself with each of the 17 items on your priority list is better than having completed just one or two, but that’s wrong. If you’re in the back office, you think doing your cash exception reporting while catching up on last night’s TV with coworkers is no big deal – after all, it’s a task you do every day – but that’s wrong too. 


So what can we do about it?

  • At corporate: Try the Pomodoro Technique, or a version of it that works for you. Basically, it’s a time management philosophy in which you block off your time in 25-minute increments. You work on one task for the full 25 minutes – no distractions, including email, social media, or checking in on another task you just remembered – then take a five-minute break. After four Pomodoros, take a longer break. You might find the rigidly timed nature of the Pomodoros doesn’t work for you, but something similar might – one task between two meetings, for example.
  • In the back office: The very best way to avoid making mistakes while multitasking on manual tasks is to eliminate those tasks altogether. Michigan State University research says interruptions of just two or three seconds can double the number of errors you make. Implementing automated corporate reporting and currency management software means technology will complete these time-consuming, manual tasks for your employees and give you operations visibility you can use to optimize your business.
  • On the sales floor:  Now here’s an area where task-switching can be a good thing. It might not be efficient to stop stocking a display or clearing a fitting room to help a customer, but it is productive because you’re increasing customer spend. Customer experience is crucial to your store’s reputation, and it’s affected by the tangible and intangible aspects of payroll productivity alike. Make sure there are enough people on the floor to strike a balance between customer service and other profit-boosting activities, or find non-productive areas, like currency management, where you can reduce labor through automation.


Breaking free of the need to multitask won’t happen overnight. It’s a bad habit we’ve trained our brains to respond to, and learning to appreciate the sense of accomplishment and value that comes with focusing on one task is tough. But give it a chance – before you know it, your brain, your buyers and your bottom line will thank you.




Image: iStock