Retailers Likely to Limit Part-Time Seasonal Help

By Staff Report

Nov. 4, 2008

Retailers will be hiring fewer part-time holiday workers this season in reaction to predictions of flat retail sales growth of 1 to 2 percent from last year.

But because rising unemployment is expected to yield a bigger crowd of job seekers this year, retailers have a chance to get better-quality hires, analysts say.

Several economic indicators point to a tepid holiday shopping season for retailers as tough times limit consumer spending. The 10-year average of holiday retail sales growth is 4.4 percent, according to the Washington-based National Retail Federation, but forecasts for this season have slipped to 2.2 percent.

Daniel Butler, vice president of the federation’s retail operations, said retailers plan to hire fewer part-time workers but will likely give them more hours per week.

Part-time workers will be deployed primarily at stores within national chains where sales are strongest, Butler said, with managers closely tracking activity so headquarters can make staffing adjustments on the fly.

“They’re planning [seasonal hiring] store by store and determining what their actual need is,” Butler said.

But stores also likely have a core of proven part-timers available on call to staff any store where sales are more active than predicted, Butler added.

“A lot of companies have developed a bench if business is stronger,” he said.

But this year, “they’re really counting more on existing full-time staff,” Butler noted.

Retailers aren’t planning to cut any full-timers, whose ranks have mostly grown in the past year, he said.

Veronica Harvey, senior vice president of talent solutions for Chicago-based Aon Consulting, said retailers should be especially keen this year on hiring the best temporary help because it can translate into more sales.

Getting the right people is going to continue to be critical,” she said. “In a year in which every sale is particularly critical, you don’t want to lose a sale because you don’t have someone working in an appropriate manner.”

“A strong service orientation” isn’t teachable, Harvey said, but it is detectable through a good applicant-screening process.

Other desired traits of holiday hires, such as dependability to show up for work and adaptability to various job shifts, also can be detected with screening tools. Basic math, literacy and reasoning skills are also assessed.

“If you can hire someone who sells incrementally more” than an average-performing quick hire, Harvey said, “at a big box retailer, that translates into a lot of dollars. The key for merchants is not to shortchange the selection process.”

She added that holiday hiring has been put off by some retailers, which suddenly gives them little time to hire.

And this year, with a higher volume of holiday temp workers expected to apply for retail positions, screening tests can speed up processing of large batches of applications, Harvey added.

Her recommendation to retailers facing an overload of applicants: Hire consultants specializing in large-scale employee recruiting to save time and attract good hires.

—Mark Larson 

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