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US holiday season hit by understaffing, high turnover

Jan '21
Pic: Shutterstock
Pic: Shutterstock
The versatility and resilience of retailers helped many stores survive last year’s complicated holiday shopping season in the United States, which was plagued by frequent understaffing, high turnover, workplace anxiety and a host of recruitment challenges, according to the annual end-of-season survey commissioned by the Ultimate Kronos Group (UKG).

While COVID-19 was undeniably disruptive to business, three in five retailers either reported an increase in year-over-year (YoY) holiday sales in stores (37 per cent) or no significant change (22 per cent).

‘Retail’s 2020 Post-holiday Season Review’, the second annual study from UKG surveying 300 US retail managers responsible for hiring or staffing decisions in stores, reveals despite best efforts to recruit, rehire and attract seasonal staff for this most unprecedented season, only two out of five retail store managers (43 per cent) said they fully met their hiring goals, and a mere one in three deemed stores fully prepared (35 per cent) or felt they had adequate headcount to consistently meet shopper demand (33 per cent) throughout the holiday season.

A comparison with 2019 survey reveals a noticeable rise in technology adoption to aid recruitment by the human resources (HR) departments. More than twice as many retailers invested in talent acquisition (52 per cent) and onboarding technology (50 per cent) in stores ahead of the 2020 holiday shopping season compared to 23 per cent and 21 per cent of retailers respectively in 2019.

It is, however, unclear whether technology adoption spiked in response to the pandemic, or if these investments were part of a larger HR transformation initiative among retailers, an UKG press release said.

Only one in four retailers (27 per cent) got through the 2020 holiday shopping season without seeing a member of their store staff test positive for COVID-19. Correspondingly, employee turnover attributed specifically to personal concerns about COVID-19 was high: Nearly half of retail managers (48 per cent) said store employees quit at least once a month, and 14 per cent said they lost employees on a weekly basis (2-3 times a week).

Over the duration of the holiday shopping season, almost all retail managers (92 per cent) observed COVID-related anxiety among store staff, including 81 per cent who said employees felt stressed or anxious at least once a month. This magnitude of pandemic-induced anxiety in stores may have caught retailers off guard, as only 72 per cent anticipated this kind of emotional response from workers when surveyed before the season.

A comparative analysis reveals two distinct approaches to attracting high-performing seasonal talent. Large retailers were more likely to offer employees flexible schedules (67 per cent vs. 60 per cent), enable shift swaps (49 per cent vs. 40 per cent), and allow associates to set their own schedule preferences (30 per cent vs. 27 per cent), and fewer—just one in five (21 per cent)—said meeting candidates’ expectations around workplace technology posed a barrier during recruitment compared to 27 per cent of small/medium retailers.

Meanwhile, smaller organizations were more prone to offering unique perks that drive toward enhancing total employee wellness—like performance-based bonuses (32 per cent vs. 20 per cent), financial wellness benefits (20 per cent vs. 13 per cent), and mentorship opportunities (17 per cent vs. 10 per cent)—and were twice as likely to offer free COVID-19 testing (40 per cent vs. 19 per cent), a ‘stay’ bonus (34 per cent vs. 13 per cent), or free meals (24 per cent vs. 10 per cent) compared to large retailers.

Although it was a profitable season for many, 41 per cent of retailers reported a noticeable decrease in YoY holiday sales volume in stores, and staffing issues are partly to blame for that.

A third of retail managers (32 per cent) said employees would call out of shifts with less than 24-hour’s notice at least two to three times a week.

Around a quarter of stores (27 per cent) experienced higher mid-season turnover this year than last.

Overall, despite rising unemployment numbers, seasonal workforces were smaller; furloughs were a daunting possibility; and interacting with hordes of customers in stores, in person, in the middle of a pandemic was a cause for concern.

Fibre2Fashion News Desk (DS)

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February 2021

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