• Sat. Dec 9th, 2023

Hiring this holiday season has been ‘chaotic’ for retailers

‘One day I had six interviews. Nobody came’

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Hiring retail sales associates for this year’s holiday shopping season hasn’t been easy for Ana Gamboa. In fact, the associate manager at a Toronto store describes it in one word — “chaotic.”

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“One day I had six interviews. Nobody came,” said Gamboa, who helps run the downtown Toronto location of Hatley Little Blue House Inc., a Montreal-based retailer that primarily sells kids’ clothing and matching family pyjama sets. “(The candidates) set up a time, they set up a date, they knew where the location is, and they just don’t show up. We don’t get any responses from them.”

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Faced with a holiday hiring environment that’s very different from before the pandemic, and after having had a similar experience last year, Gamboa rolled out job postings a full month earlier than in years’ past, hoping to get a bite. But even that didn’t work the way she expected, and she was still trying to hire into December.

She’s not the only one who’s been forced to try new hiring tactics, as sticking to the traditional playbook could mean facing the busiest shopping season of the year without adequate staff. A tight labour market that’s left thousands of positions unfilled across the retail sector has companies bringing on recruiters, hiking wages or even turning to virtual interviews for in-store positions.

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Shoppers crowd the Eaton Centre mall in Toronto. This holiday season retailers have found it difficult to find extra help to cover the rush.
Shoppers crowd the Eaton Centre mall in Toronto. This holiday season retailers have found it difficult to find extra help to cover the rush. Photo by Ernest Doroszuk/Toronto Sun/Postmedia Network

Retail labour shortage

The retail sector has been particularly hard hit by labour shortages in the aftermath of the pandemic. In October, there were nearly 115,000 open retail jobs, Statistics Canada said, up 38 per cent from the same time in 2019. Meanwhile, retail sales continued to grow, while payroll employment has stayed relatively level. “Job vacancies in the sector have remained elevated, reflecting the recruitment and retention challenges facing many employers,” Statistics Canada reported in its most recent labour force survey.

Gamboa points to pandemic lockdowns for her hiring troubles today. She thinks they prompted experienced workers to flee the industry, after becoming fed up with off-again, on-again closures that brought a new level of uncertainty to an already precarious industry. The result has been a dearth in the applicant pool. Gamboa said she now sees more high-schoolers and post-secondary students who’ve never worked in a boutique submitting resumes, which are often loaded with volunteer experience rather than paid work.

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That lack of qualified applicants has made the hiring process much slower. Pre-pandemic, Gamboa would be able to hire five additional people to handle the holiday rush by the middle of October. This year, even though the company posted seasonal positions on job boards by the end of September, Gamboa brought on her last hire by Dec. 10.

Lately, there’s also a risk those new hires won’t show up on their first day of work. One recruit accepted a job offer after a successful interview, Gamboa said. But after managers prepared training materials and a sign-in code for the Sunday the new hire was supposed to start, they were left with an unstaffed shift. “She just didn’t show up. They tried messaging her, emailing her — (they got) nothing,” Gamboa said.

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Recruiters get creative

To find qualified managers for empty roles, Hatley even hired a dedicated recruiter this year, something that wasn’t deemed a necessity until now. The recruiter also helped hire two associates for the downtown Toronto location over a Zoom call.

Other, bigger retailers also turned to virtual interviews this season. Chris Taylor, chief human resources officer for Best Buy Co. Inc.’s Canadian unit, said hiring managers at stores “fast track” the process, conducting more virtual interviews and offering jobs the same day.

“There’s a lot of opportunity for (candidates) to decide on where they’re going for seasonal retail or hospitality, frankly,” Taylor said. It’s no longer the same as even just five years ago, where candidates would face multiple interviews and come in another day to meet managers for a culture fit check.

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“The applicant process as well as the interview process and the offer process, we’re moving through that in the very same week,” he said.

Indigo Books & Music Inc. is also using technology to fast-track its recruitment process. This year, it began posting QR codes on hiring signs throughout the store to simplify the application process. When scanned, the codes show applicants vacant roles and allow them to upload their information. There’s also an AI tracking system attached to match people with potential jobs, said Agatha De Santis, vice-president of talent for the bookstore.

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Some retailers are also turning to wage hikes to get more people on board. Best Buy has raised wages in stores in some of the tougher job markets, Taylor said. In Quebec City, sales associates “make in the neighbourhood” of $1 to $1.50 more per hour than the typical starting rate. The electronics retailer also bumped up the hourly wages in distribution centres in Ontario and B.C. from $15.50 to $18.50.

“In some markets, we’ve needed to be a bit more reactive,” he said.

Best Buy also tells managers to keep a look out for workers at other retailers, and gives them the power to make job offers on the spot if they feel they received excellent customer service.

For Gamboa, this year’s recruitment challenges have proven that she and her team will need to continue tweaking their seasonal hiring strategy to weather the holiday shopping crunch.

“Your biggest worry is you don’t want to be burn out for those two months having to deal with the amount of customers we have to deal with,” she said. “It’s nice to have a lot of people on hand that are reliable.”

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