For retailers, a holiday dilemma: staffing for the unpredictable

Caroline Champlin Sep 28, 2021
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Last-minute holiday shoppers make a trip to a New York City Macy's on Dec. 24, 2020. Scott Heins via Getty Images

For retailers, a holiday dilemma: staffing for the unpredictable

Caroline Champlin Sep 28, 2021
Heard on:
Last-minute holiday shoppers make a trip to a New York City Macy's on Dec. 24, 2020. Scott Heins via Getty Images
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Retailers are already gearing up to hire staff for the holidays.

Target announced it’s hiring fewer workers than last year. Its plan is to offer employees scheduling flexibility and more hours. And like many companies in the retail space, it says it will focus on e-commerce, like delivery, curbside and in-store pickup.

At a Pasadena, California, Target parking lot recently, there were half a dozen customers in cars waiting for somebody to deliver their orders.

Like Rebecca Betanco. “I was thinking about it recently that even if the pandemic would be over I would still want this service and still use It,” she said.

That’s what Target is betting on. Over the last two years the company said it has tripled the store fulfillment staff.

But when it comes to holiday shopping, Betanco said she prefers the in-store experience.

“That you go inside the store and like the whole store is decorated with like fall, or Halloween stuff, Thanksgiving stuff, Christmas stuff,” she said. “Listen to the holiday music and see all the trees and lights.”

That can pose a dilemma for retailers: Consumers like Betanco want different things. Trying to gauge all their preferences is a tricky business, said David Marcotte with Kantar Consulting.

“What you’re suggesting is the biggest failure for the last two years is predicting demand,” he said.

That’s where staffing comes in. “[Be]cause you need to make up for all the variables that you can no longer predict with people that are more flexible in terms of their response,” Marcotte said.

But traditional customer service roles can be different from e-commerce support, said Forrester’s Brendan Witcher. On the fulfillment side, he said retailers should be looking for organized workers who have an eye for detail, “that have the physical capacity to be running back and forth between the aisles and the backroom for packing things and shipping them out,” he said.

In a pinch, Witcher said those staff have to do it all — but that can take a toll on workers.

“You hear a lot of grumbling,” said Chelsea Gross, an analyst with Gartner who regularly visits Target stores to do research. “So you pick up on a lot of conversations, and you’re basically just spying.”

And that gives her insights into how employees are handling these demands.

“One person I heard from Target was actually quitting before the holiday season because she was too stressed about the idea of going through that again during COVID,” she said.

So, Target and other retailers are already focused on trying to keep the seasonal workers they do hire beyond the holidays, Gross added.

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