The Warehouse Group says its moves to reduce labour costs and improve productivity were not significant enough to warrant a separate disclosure to the sharemarket.
But the National Distribution Union estimates the labour savings will be the equivalent of about 600 full-time jobs at The Warehouse. The Warehouse is running a productivity and labour costs initiative called Project Invigorate.
Chief financial officer Luke Bunt said the scheme was partly to train staff to generate more sales. It was also about labour scheduling and having the right number of staff on the shop floor at slow and busy times. "The result of Invigorate will be higher sales, but rather than redundancies, it could conceivably mean that people would be paid for fewer hours.
"It's partly about cost reductions and it's partly about increased sales, but what it isn't is about is wholesale redundancies," Bunt said.
In response to Businessday comments that the eventual reduction in hours of work at one of the country's largest retailers was a matter of public interest, Bunt said: "If we felt the number of people that may lose their job as a result of any initiative within the organisation was going to be significant we would do so [make an announcement] and we haven't said so."
Bunt said chief executive Ian Morrice had said the company was aiming to reduce costs by $30 million out of its costs base over three years. "But what he has also said is that much of that will go against offsetting inflationary pressures in the other parts of the business."
Reduction in the costs of goods, freight, productivity improvement and control of inventory were all contributing to the $30 million.
Asked about the total of labour hours that might be saved, Bunt said:
"If we felt it was so significant that it warranted separate disclosure because it was of interest to the public then we would be [disclosing it]. Unfortunately this isn't helping your story because it isn't that significant."
National Distribution Union general secretary Laila Harre said the union had a broader concern that the reduction in working hours in the retail sector would be disguised by company restructuring that took place largely through attrition.
This made it difficult for those outside the process to suggest ways retail jobs could be protected. Attrition and non-replacement of staff were just as significant in the labour market as losing jobs through redundancies. "It is true that Project Invigorate itself is not leading to redundancies, but it is also true Project Invigorate will result in a significant reduction in labour hours worked in The Warehouse."
The union's estimate of 600 full-time positions was based on the nine stores in which Project Invigorate was first implemented in Christchurch.
That was using the difference in the current funded hours and the ideal "invigorated" hours and applied to the rest of The Warehouse operation.
Bunt said The Warehouse Group did not report labour costs separately in the annual report because it was a commercially sensitive figure. There was a line called "employment costs" but that was employment costs across the entire group. Asked if they had a plan and target to reduce labour costs Bunt said,
"We do but it's not something I can comment on."
There was a plan around productivity but there were conversations for individual stores and individual people which the National Distribution Union was involved in.