New Economic Realities   //   November 29, 2022

How Ocean State Job Lot is adjusting its work structure to navigate labor challenges

In a challenging labor environment, Ocean State Job Lot is introducing a number of initiatives centered around the well-being and professional growth of its workforce.

Ocean State Job Lot or OSJL, a discount retailer with 150 stores in New England and the Mid-Atlantic, has already begun offering corporate employees a hybrid work model. By early 2023, it will start offering all its associates a human capital management system called WorkLife to help them understand what it takes to get promoted to a specific role.

Attracting and retaining talent are two of a myriad of labor issues retailers have been dealing with over the past two years. As a result, retailers have been pulling various levers to keep the workers they have. As work structures continue to shift, OSJL has introduced perks and initiatives to meet the needs of its nearly 6,000-person workforce — which is inclusive of corporate office, distribution center and store workers. 

“We’re dealing with some of the same issues that all retailers are dealing with, but our retention numbers are significantly better than the competition,” said Ben Perlman, OSJL’s director of strategy, who is a second-generation member of the family-owned firm. “This is where we really get mileage from living true to the philosophy that we preach — the mission, the vision and the values.” The company did not provide additional employee retention statistics. 

Founded in 1977, Ocean State Job Lot offers everything from home decor and pet essentials to clothing and food at affordable prices. Its value-based offering has allowed the company to amass a cult-like following over the years and experience sales growth even during the pandemic. OSJL saw $750 million in sales back in 2020, and this year, it expects to hit close to $850 million in sales.

OSJL began to rethink its work model in response to the pandemic when corporate employees began working remotely to minimize in-person contact. In 2021, the company began developing a hybrid working policy, now referred to as “Flex Forward,” which lets department heads in the company identify the right balance between office work and remote work. For example, the marketing team and the finance team tend to work remotely.

Perlman said that this new set of worker-centered initiatives demonstrates its commitment to its people. WorkLife helps associates outline their career journeys within the company, manage their schedules and understand some of the skill sets needed for a certain role. For example, if a front-end supervisor wants to be a store team leader, Perlman said this person now needs to know how to manage schedules, manage the flow of merchandise and understand the financial health of the store. 

“We really want our associates to understand where they are in the organization, what the next step of their journey looks like, and to have access to the right resources,” Perlman said. He added that WorkLife is “a core strategy of the company next year so we’re going to make a lot of progress on this.”

Clear internal career outlines tend to be available for corporate employees, but offering it store associates helps employees feel more motivated to perform at their best, said Andrew Duffy, co-founder and CEO of incentive management platform SparkPlug. 

“A 50 cent per hour raise or $1 per hour raise or the employee of the month recognition, those things aren’t really getting people excited,” Duffy said. “What they want to feel is that every day when they put in effort, they get a reward.”

Jennifer Shewan, vp of people at online staffing platform Wonolo, said that the pandemic changed how people view work, with some people looking for better hours and career opportunities. Retailers like Walmart have begun offering career development programs in response to this shifting mindset. Meanwhile, Target is touting flexible work schedules for its associates.  

“The unemployment rate is obviously unprecedentedly low in the United States,” Shewan said. “Being a little bit more creative and flexible and how you go about [work] can really help you get past this war on talent so to speak.”

However, when offering benefits like hybrid work schedules, Shewan said a big challenge for companies is to make sure that they still treat workers equitably regardless of how often they prefer to work remotely or in the office. Still, she said that when companies look after a worker’s health holistically, it tends to help with retention.

“The challenge is always the 90-day turnover,” Perlman said. “Once people have time and they find their groove at Job Lot and really understand who we are, they stick around. I think that’s the secret sauce.”

OSJL is also unveiling a service next year that would give its full-time and part-time associates benefits like easy access to a primary health physician and mental health coaching through their smartphones. Perlman said this service is an evolution of an existing program.

“It’s interesting coming into an organization as a second generation [member of the family-owned company]. A lot of infrastructures are already built, there’s an established culture in the company,” he said. “But I think there’s an opportunity to be a little bit more prescriptive with the way we approach strategy.”