Retailers Faced Staffing Woes During 2019 Holiday Season

By Dinah Wisenberg Brin February 7, 2020
retail salesperson

​A tight labor market appears to have put pressure on retail hiring managers during the 2019 holiday season, with a recent survey showing that only one-third considered their stores fully prepared and that most encountered hiring difficulties.

Close to 60 percent of hiring managers cited attendance problems among holiday staff and more than 20 percent reported paying more overtime than expected because of unplanned worker absences, according to the 2019 Retail Holiday Hiring Pulse Survey commissioned by Kronos Inc. and conducted by The Harris Poll.

Kronos, a workforce management and human capital management software firm, recommended several moves retailers can make to shore up seasonal staffing in 2020: seeking out previous employees, offering scheduling flexibility, hiring earlier and extending wellness benefits.

"Ensuring that seasonal workers help to deliver a positive customer experience is one of the biggest challenges facing retailers," said Amanda Nichols, Kronos senior manager, retail and hospitality group.

"To attract and retain the types of employees you want representing your brand during peak seasons—whether the winter holidays, back to school or summertime—focus on creating an employee experience differentiated by flexible and predictable schedules, the ability to easily swap or pick up extra shifts, opportunities for post-season employment, and, of course, fair treatment and competitive pay," she said.

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The Harris Poll surveyed 300 retail hiring managers online from Dec. 19, 2019, to Jan. 6, 2020. Among the findings:

  • Half reported it was hard to recruit employees capable of performing the various necessary in-store tasks, from customer service to order fulfillment.
  • Only 45 percent felt they'd met their seasonal hiring goals, and more than one-quarter experienced greater difficulty meeting hiring goals for the 2019 holidays than a year earlier.
  • Nearly one-third (32 percent) had trouble attracting qualified candidates, according to Kronos, and more than 25 percent had difficulty identifying top talent from a large applicant pool.
  • Nearly 90 percent believed they'd hired the right people and reported that seasonal staff had helped the company reach sales goals and boosted the customer experience, but almost half had trouble keeping the seasonal associates they'd hired.
  • Twelve percent reported being short-staffed often during holiday-season shifts, 13 percent frequently experienced employee tardiness, and 11 percent often had to deal with no-shows.
  • More than 60 percent of hiring managers said their stores offered flexible schedules to seasonal employees and more than 40 percent enabled associates to easily swap shifts with co-workers, while fewer than half guaranteed workers a minimum number of hours.
  • Roughly one-fifth of hiring managers offered seasonal employees health care benefits and paid time off, and 12 percent provided financial wellness benefits.

Given low unemployment in the United States, Kronos had expected retailers to face hiring issues, but the firm was somewhat surprised by the degree of those challenges, Nichols said.

"Employees today have the option to really work anywhere they want to work," she added. Retailers face competition not only from other retailers but also from "unexpected sectors," such as gig-economy employers like Uber that offer flexible work arrangements.

Understaffed stores with overworked associates are "a big deal" from a customer-service perspective, one that could ultimately affect revenue, Nichols noted.

Bob Clements, president of Toronto-based workforce management consultancy Axsium Group, said many retailers he's talked to also reported a difficult holiday hiring season. Seasonal hiring is particularly hard in an economy that's close to full employment, he said.

"It is a very tight job market for the front-line retail workforce right now. Even outside the holiday season, we're seeing retailers struggle to meet their schedules," Clements said.

Because of the tight labor market, retail employees know they can quit an unsatisfying job and find a new position the next day, Nichols added.

Seasonal and nonseasonal retail sales associates want flexibility, the ability to pick up extra shifts, and as much advance information as possible about the timing and number of hours they'll be working, according to experts.

" 'Give me flexibility, give me control, but don't impose it on me.' That's what associates want these days," Clements said.

"It's really on the employer to make that shift swap very easy for employees," Nichols said.

Apps can make it easier for employees to swap shifts or pick up extra work and for employers to communicate with and engage current and former employees, experts noted. Employers also can use AI-driven technology to find qualified people available for a particular shift, send them notifications and offer extra pay, Nichols said.

Clements recommended that retail employers look to "boomerang" employees—those who previously worked at the organization—as a hiring source. Kronos reported that a large majority of hiring managers said returning employees were the best performers during the 2019 holiday season. Employers that use boomerang workers effectively make it very easy for them to return and reactivate, Nichols said.

Tapping into an "alumni network" is one of the best ways to increase retail hiring success, according to Clements, who noted that these employees already know the brand, are enthusiastic about it, and know how to sell and stock for the company. "Even if they've moved on to different employment, if you can keep that network alive and bring them back in, those few extra hours can make a difference" for employer and employee alike, he said.

Predictable scheduling is also important. "The more you can tell people what their schedule is in advance … the more likely you are to attract people and keep them satisfied during the holiday season," Clements said.

Nichols suggested that retailers going above and beyond to enhance the employee experience are more likely to attract employees. "It's a circle of increasing expectation based on what top employers are offering," she said.

Dinah Wisenberg Brin is a freelance writer and journalist based in Philadelphia.



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