Part-time work: the opportunity cost of making ends meet


I started working at my local store of a high-street retailer during my AS levels, and during my three years employment I’ve almost been fired four times, and felt like quitting at least one-hundred times. There are just moments of physical inability which “Big Brother” (Head Office) fails to comprehend, and moments of severe stress. Join me, reader, in my fortnightly tale of triumphs and tumultuous turmoil as I recall the good and bad moments of my minimum wage, zero-hour contract career so far.

One such example is what my summer “holiday” was like this year. I needed as much money as I could get to fund the next year of university and, being on National Minimum Wage for my age bracket of 18-21 (£5.03 per hour) plus any commission, I needed as many hours as I could afford to get.  Unfortunately, the store was undermanned in the delivery shift department (as no one wants to do it) and they decided that, as I had volunteered to do delivery shifts in order to get hours, that was going to be the place where I was going to be.

I’m a salesperson, selling customers footwear and driving sales – even acting as supervisor or manager of my department at times. Yet now I was going to be doing deliveries. My alarm would go off at 3:45am, as I’d scurry around my pitch-black bedroom putting on my uniform, grabbing my hi-vis vest, and leaving the house without making a sound (so as to not wake the parents) at 4:05am. It takes me just over an hour to walk, zombified, the 6km into town to work – there are no buses at that time, nor can I afford a bike what with saving for university and my current wage.  I’d save the one-litre bottle of Lucozade in my bag for the struggle ahead. Once at work, I’d get sorted and start work at 5:30am.

As a shoeboy (“Shoey”), I know trainers inside and out, and so it’s solely my job to sort the shoes that come in through delivery into categories: ladies floor, ground floor, basement floor, and hanging shoes. Within the ground floor category, there are two sub-categories: table stock (i.e. the boxes you see on the shop floor), and stockroom stock (the shoes you see on the walls but with no boxes on the shop floor). Within both of these, the shoes are grouped into brand, and then by size range.

Shoes come in cages – roughly 80 shoes per cage and about seven cages in a delivery during the summer. Big Brother guidelines say a cage should be sorted and cleared in ten minutes. I have until 9am to clear all cages, and an hour after that my shift finishes.  As an undergraduate economist, I worked out the efficiency of this. There’s approximately 560 shoes in total and 210 minutes in which to sort them. Meaning every minute, I have to clear 2.67 shoes to sort out; all to be finished by 9am. This is kind of achievable, when you take into account fatigue from being on my feet for at least an hour already at a stupidly early time of day, the fact I’m doing shuttle-runs between the cage and where the category piles are, and the effects of the Lucozade are wearing off!

Now let’s analyse Big Brothers’ estimates. The company average for unloading a cage is ten minutes. This means eight shoes per minute have to be sorted, or a shoe every 0.134 seconds (yeah, right. That means grabbing a shoe, looking at the product name, knowing where it goes, placing it in the place, and getting back to the cage, in 0.134 seconds). Big Brother fails to recognise the fact that the company average is that low because there are four or five Shoeys in most other delivery teams, but just myself in my store’s delivery team.  This has caused a few disputes between myself and my manager. He tells me I’m not quick enough, whereas I’m telling him that having me run (yes, literally run) across the shop floor single-handedly doing the task is, from an economists point of view, inefficient. Having at least one more person would make the task be completed closer to company standards, but he refuses to see that – even with my empirical workings out – and rules that I must work faster (how exactly?)

So that’s how my mornings over the summer were for about six days a week. Sometimes I’d do it for ten days straight (and not always finish at 10am either – on occasions I stayed on until 4pm, or even 11pm!). From an economist’s viewpoint, the opportunity cost of myself going to work was an extra six or seven hours in bed (and that’s really what I’d prefer!), however, with rising living costs at university by not living on a “Pot Noodle” diet, I really needed as much money as I could get. Needless to say I’ll specifically be asking to avoid the delivery shift when I return for the Christmas vacation.