Retail Staffing 101: Holiday Hiring

Ray Hartjen
Ray Hartjen
Guest Contributor

The holiday season represents opportunity for retailers, and the time is now to prepare to capture your share. It's never been less about product and more about experience than now, and your holiday staff can make all the difference in creating a happy holiday for your shoppers and your brand.

For most retailers, the holiday shopping season is the biggest opportunity of the year. In 2017, U.S. retail sales during the November and December season increased 5.5 percent from the year previous, to $691 billion.

The holiday season represents opportunity that just cannot be ignored.

It also requires special attention from most functions of the retail enterprise, especially store operations, where the sheer volume of holiday activity often requires a seasonal adjustment to the workforce. Last year, retailers added over 600,000 employees for the season.

But, how do you ensure you hire right for the holidays? Below, I’ll share a few fundamental tips that will have you staffed up and ready to seize the holiday opportunity.

Before you think about hiring, first understand how your shoppers’ priorities may shift

The holiday shopping season is a different beast for everyone, retailers and shoppers alike. Don’t think it’s going to be business as usual, only on a bigger scale with more shoppers, more associates and – hopefully – more sales.

The holiday shopping season might require you to re-evaluate your service delivery model, and alter it – if necessary – for the demands of your holiday shoppers.

Holiday shoppers are going to want two things for certain – quick, hassle-free checkout and fully stocked shelves. If you have a high-touch, assisted selling floor, like specialty apparel, for example, you might need to adjust your focus. Or, conversely, you might want to hire directly for what’s needed, freeing your best and most experienced associates from non-selling tasks and keeping them more engaged with shoppers.

After knowing what you need, then focus on who you need

The single most important consideration in hiring seasonal associates is to ‘hire for attitude, train for aptitude.’ Like all employees, your seasonal hires will very much be a reflection of your store and your brand. Your seasonal hires not only have to buy into the essence of your brand and what it delivers to shoppers and customers, but they also have fit in with your established team.

That’s a challenge each and every time you hire. What makes seasonal hiring that much more difficult is that your team needs to jell into a cohesive, high-performing unit within an extremely short time frame.

Good hires are not easy to find, so get your hiring plans in order now and set off on an early start. After all, you don’t want your competitor down the street to snap up all the best talent first.

Secondly, with respect to talent, don’t get too hung up about retail experience or specific product knowledge. In fact, for your new hires, it might be better to start with a relatively blank slate, as that allows you to train and coach them up for the needs of your store, your brand and your shoppers. It’s often a lot easier to learn than to first unlearn and then set out to learn again anew.

Be on the lookout for great service you receive as a shopper or customer. When you experience exceptional service with a great customer-first attitude, inquire as to an interest in picking up holiday hours. And, if they’re not interested, ask them for referrals of friends who have similar attitudes and values.

Train for success

A ‘sink or swim’ approach to retail onboarding rarely yields great results, and the opportunity holiday season represents makes it a particularly ill-suited strategy for seasonal new hires.

Make the effort to create a training plan for your associates and stick to it. Start with the foundational basics and your most critical needs – like restocking shelves and efficient check out of customers with the POS, for instance – and build it out from there, keeping things simple with ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts,’ and removing as much interpretation as possible from policies, procedures and processes.

Additionally, in the training process, your new hire trainees are not your only concern. Don’t forget about the existing staff you’re enlisting as trainers. Ensure your trainers are adequately prepared, and never, ever ‘surprise’ an associate with a training responsibility at the beginning of a shift.

When it comes to training material, go beyond just thinking about the subject matter – you know, like the basics mentioned above – and consider the training methodology itself. Long gone are the days of thick binders of written material, particularly with younger, ‘digitally native’ members of the work force – it’s just not the way they learn.

Rather, reach seasonal new hires with training processes emphasizing engagement through easily accessible short, easy to digest learning modules. Keep it simple. Effective learning modules can be as easy as recording a video on your mobile phone of a team member who does something important extremely well sharing the secrets of her success.

Lastly, recognize new hires and trainers for their efforts, as positive reinforcement encourages positive future behavior!

Don’t forget your managers are tremendous assets

In the midst of holiday volume and all the stress that comes with it, there’s often a temptation for store and district managers to help out, and that’s an awesome idea.

If applied correctly.

True, ensuring shelves are stocked and that the cash wrap is run quickly and efficiently are going to be important during the holiday season, but I’d be willing to wager your managers didn’t grow into their roles because they were exceptional in those tasks. No, my money says they moved into management because they were outstanding with shoppers.

Play to managers’ strengths. Keep them on the floor, engaging with customers. Train your seasonal new hires to complete non-selling tasks and move them onto the floor as they mature and grow.

Putting it all to best use

Finally, don’t entrust the service of your holiday 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 the trap of using transactional data as a proxy for shopper traffic, as those are lagging indicators that really are self-fulfilling prophecies. Shopper traffic represents your opportunity, and if you’re not measuring the retailing fundamentals of traffic, conversion and shopper yield, well, we should talk – send me an email at

For those of you who do measure traffic and understand your peak power hours, adjust the scheduling of meals and other breaks to guarantee optimal coverage for your shoppers’ needs. Simply aligning staff hours to traffic demand has proven to immediately increase sales 6-8 percent!

Good luck this coming holiday season! For more information on preparing for the holidays, be sure to download the eBook, “A Retailer’s Guide to Holiday 2018,” as well as watch the webinar on demand, “Preparing for Holiday 2018.”

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