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2017 Holiday Hiring Outlook: Hire Early

2017 Holiday Hiring Outlook: Hire Early

By: John Rossheim

Retailer sales in 2017 will grow 3.7 percent to 4.2 percent in 2017, according to the National Federation of Retailers. Online retail is expected to triple that overall rate, climbing by 8 percent to 12 percent this year. So the stage is set for a stellar holiday retail season — as long as retailers can find enough of the right workers to make it happen.

The prime directive is to start hiring early. “It’s going to be a tougher holiday recruiting season with unemployment so low, so retailers will start ramping up in August,” says Kristen Fowler, practice director at retail industry recruiter Clarke Caniff.

It’s also important to acknowledge that this holiday season will require a greater investment of resources. “Low unemployment does definitely make it harder to hire,” says Wright. 

“Our hiring of Santas and district manager is underway,” says Berk Wright, vice president of personnel at Cherry Hill Photo. Hiring of local managers kicks up in about a month.”

What other trends will drive holiday hiring this year? Here are views from around the industry.

Some fundamentals of retail never change. “Retailers need to figure out how to capture and stay relevant to customers,” says Andrew Miller, CEO of staffing firm BrainWorks Inc.

The big winners in the 2017 holiday season will be those that excel in customer convenience, in-store as well as online, provide superior service and operate efficiently enough to keep their pricing competitive.

The need for high-quality in-store service is greater than ever. “The jobs that we’re seeing where the mix is really shifting is store clerks and other positions in store, to keep customer experience high,” says Greg Dyer, president of Randstad’s commercial staffing division. Smaller stores, given their difficulty with matching prices offered by big-box and major online retailers, will be under the greatest pressure to hire the best help for the holidays.

A few traditional retail roles will not keep pace. Some in-store roles such as cashier may plateau or decline as online continues to grow in 2017. At the same time, big-box stores will keep nudging customers toward self-service checkout. Always in demand: Attendants who offer friendly and effective aid when customers encounter uncooperative self-service terminals.

Remote customer service is up and coming. In April, Amazon announced that it will hire 5,000 remote customer service workers; other retailers are watching this experiment closely.  “The remote-worker model isn’t perfected yet, but there is growth is ahead,” says Dyer. Remote work has the potential to draw on a new talent pool, “but the employer loses some sense of control as far as managing.” 

“With everything being stored in the cloud, it’s easy to track metrics, number and quality of calls,” says Fowler. Staffing firms that have been supplying seasonal customer service workers will find it particularly challenging to remain relevant to clients who turn to remote workers.

In-store fulfillment requires in-store labor.  Another trend is affecting the seasonal workforce planning of larger retailers: in-store pickup of online orders, shipments between stores, and other store-based fulfillment processes. “Often instead of product coming from a distribution center, it comes from nearby stores,” says Fowler. This may require more staffing behind the scenes at retail locations to execute shipping and handle returns. 

The logistics of retail becomes ever more complex. As online retail grows, there’s a greater focus on logistics and related staffing, says Fowler. Large retailers, whether primarily online or brick-and-mortar, may find 2017 the most challenging year yet to recruit the tech talent they need to prepare their logistics systems for peak season. 

The unemployment rate in information technology jobs has been under 3 percent this year, a daunting sign for retailer tech recruiters.

Qualified drivers are getting even harder to find. “UPS and Fedex will need to ramp up their hiring earlier this year,” given retail’s healthy growth, especially online, Fowler says. Staffing firms that can effectively prescreen candidates for these job can make themselves useful to retailers of any size that must hire drivers.

Warehouse workers are working elbow-to-actuator with robots. Large retailers with substantial warehouse operations are bringing in robots by the thousands, especially for pick and pack. This holiday season, automation will continue to cut into the demand for human packers. It will also expand the need for human operators to oversee and troubleshoot the silicon legion.

Full employment means seasonal wages must rise (faster). Unemployment has been hovering just above 4 percent for months, so for this holiday season “wage inflation will be sparked somewhat,” says Dyer. 

The moral for retailers is to pay a little more for better workers. Competition on pay will become increasingly visible to candidates, Fowler says. “Retailers are going to advertise what they pay, which didn’t happen in the past.”