Hiring Right for the Holidays

Shelley E. Kohan
Shelley E. Kohan
Vice President of Retail Consulting

Holiday is still retail’s busiest and biggest season, and the right seasonal hiring practices can make all the difference between a great seasonal performance and a mediocre one.

From a workforce perspective, the retail industry’s annual ritual of preparing for the holiday season begins with planning out the budgeted hours to hire for the holiday. This tedious endeavor is usually performed by the “bean counters” (no offense, I like bean counters as they keep us profitable). However, the real effort begins with the actual seasonal hiring of the staff – one great hire can perform the work of three mediocre hires, and when budgets are tight, hiring right can save the season.

Seasonal hires – and there were almost 600,000 of them hired across the United States last year – are thrown to the wolves almost immediately. As many companies have reduced training budgets, new hires are often left alone to learn quickly to swim or sink (and sinking becomes a liability for the retailer). In the midst of retail’s busiest and still most important season, these new seasonal associates handle retail’s most important tasks, from non-selling activities to shopper engagement, and retailers rely on these holiday hires and existing staff to ensure each shopper encounter is one that counts in terms of both loyalty and sales.

Below are a few tips on how to make seasonal hires work best for you.

Hire Right

I’m a career-long retailer, so what I’m about to write might come across as heresy, but please bear with me for just a moment.

Retail is not rocket science.

While each store has its own culture and requirements, there are some key points when hiring today’s holiday help.

The most important consideration in hiring seasonal associates is to “hire for attitude, train for aptitude.” Your new staff members will be a reflection of your brand’s very ethos, and as such, they have to not only buy into what you’re building, but be able fit in and integrate into your organizational culture in a very abbreviated time frame.

With regard to skills and experience, don’t worry too much about specific product knowledge. That can be trained, and relatively quickly at that., especially with today’s technologically advanced workforce and the wealth of online product information. More important are solid and demonstrable communication skills; an ability to listen and empathize in order to quickly build rapport and nurture relationships; an ability to learn fast; an ability to multitask and change tasks agilely; and a friendly, positive demeanor.

Remember, great retail associates help shoppers achieve their goals. Your shoppers are looking for something, and your associates should be able to help them accomplish it.

Lastly, it’s important to consider your targeted shoppers too. For example, over the past few years, much of retail’s focus has been directed on driving sales through the growing buying power of the millennial demographic segment. Today’s savvy retailers are now directing attention on better attracting and engaging Millennials and younger Gen Z employees, a strategy that should have a direct impact on driving sales growth with generational peers.

Train for Success

Never a great tactic, the holiday season is the absolute worst time to rely on a “sink or swim” approach to managing the development of newly hired employees.

You must build a training plan for your associates and stick to it. Start with the foundational basics and build it out from there, keeping things simple with “do’s” and “don’t’s” and taking out as much flexible interpretation as possible from policies, procedures and processes.

Additionally, your trainees are not your only concern; so too are your trainers. Ensure trainers are adequately prepared, and by all means avoid surprising an associate with a training responsibility at the beginning of a shift. Recognize new hires and trainers for their efforts, as positive reinforcement encourages positive future behavior!

One of retail’s longest standing dirty little secrets is the gap that exists between shoppers and what they know about your brand’s products and services as compared to what sales associates know – what I’ve termed in the past as the “knowledge deficiency gap.”

The knowledge gap can be reduced by creating engaging work areas and providing associates the tools that allow for a level playing field with the advanced shoppers who come your store(s) today. Using technology to arm associates with the right information – at the right time – about products and services is essential.

Seasonal hiring often attracts younger applicants and, in fact, 45 percent of the U.S. population are considered “digital natives,” including both Millennials and Gen Z, so take a long, hard look at your training processes. Out are thick binders of written material and day-long training sessions. That’s not how digital natives learn.

Reach new employees with training processes emphasizing engagement through learning snippets, easily accessible, on-the-go training guides. Additionally, social media influencers have an immense impact, and YouTube has become a preferred go-to learning site for all matters of subjects – life hacks, DIY, advice on purchasing products or services and even how-to’s for simple tasks can quickly be found on the video website hosting millions of “sound bites.”

Getting the Most Out of … Management

Lean staffing often requires store and district managers to step behind the counter to ring up sales, the single place in the store where they add the absolute least amount of value. That practice won’t win you the holiday season.

Get managers back on the floor engaging with staff and role-modelling the best ways to engage with and serve shoppers. Your new seasonal staff can handle the cash wrap as necessary.

Schedule Staff to Optimize Peak Hours

Finally, don’t leave the service of your shoppers to sheer luck. Based on historical traffic trends, identify your peak hours for the holiday season’s biggest days and ensure staffing is adequate across the entire floor for those times. Don’t fall for using transactional data as a measurement for shopper traffic, as this lagging indicator is not a pure measurement for footfall.  Adjust the scheduling of meals and other breaks to guarantee optimal coverage over peak hours – aligning staff hours to traffic demand can immediately increase sales 6-8 percent!

Join the #retail, #inspiringretail and #SmartStore conversations on Twitter @retailshelley & @RetailNext, as well as at www.facebook.com/retailnext.