Happy holidays!  I know it is only August and most of us in the Northern Hemisphere are baking under summer heat, but if you have not started thinking about the holidays, you will be soon.  Holiday hiring has started and will pick up speed quickly over the next few months.

If you are hoping Santa will bring you a stocking full of seasonal associates, you are going to be sorely disappointed.  Unemployment is the lowest it has been in 18 years in the United States and the lowest it has been in 40 years in Canada and the United Kingdom. Even Europe’s unemployment rate has dropped to pre-recession levels.  All of this means that it will be difficult to flex labor with seasonal staff this holiday.

How are you going to meet holiday demand with less-than-adequate staffing?  Here are six things you can start doing now to make the best of what is sure to be a challenging holiday season.

  1. Plan to give more hours to both permanent and seasonal associates. I will admit that the idea of giving more hours to existing staff is obvious. In fact, it should already be part of your holiday planning process. But, doing it well is difficult. It requires using hours to motivate associates without overburdening them or burning them out. Conversations need to be coordinated with store leadership and the corporate labor team to quantify capacity each week of the holiday season.  A lot of retailers expect open availability during the holidays but that is not practical as associates have real-life limitations.  Your workforce management system’s availability module and creative reporting can help maintain limitations and opportunities throughout your stores.2. Expect to pay overtime.  Overtime is a bad word for most retailers, but it should not be.  In fact, overtime can be less expensive than hiring new staff.  How can this be true? My friend, staffing expert and Senior Managing Director of Ankura, John Frehse, explains this phenomenon in The Overtime Lie. While John’s focus is manufacturing and distribution, the concepts apply to retail just as easily. The important thing about overtime is that it needs to be planned and productive. During the holidays, overtime should be a result of not having enough seasonal staff, not poor management or no-shows.
  2. Trim the fat in your labor model. While the holidays can add tasks to your stores, you may be able to eliminate tasks that are non-essential or less important due to the nature of the season – and if cutting tasks is not feasible, you can certainly deprioritize or reduce the frequency of certain activities. Taking out the trash less often, cleaning less frequently and reducing administrative tasks can save considerable minutes if not hours per store.
  3. Plan to work faster. As the pace picks up in November and December, work gets done faster and idle time is reduced. As a result, your labor standards – those time values that determine how many associates are needed to service expected sales/customer volume – go down allowing workers to get more done in a given hour.  If you are using industrial-engineered labor standards, you can dial back personal fatigue and delay (PF&D) values because your associates have less time between customers or tasks. If you are not using engineered standards, you can carefully apply a productivity factor to speed things up.
  4. Look for hidden time hogs in your labor model. As you review your labor model for the holidays, look for volume-driven tasks that produce the right number of hours in the off-season but may inflate hours at peak, holiday volumes. For example, if your fitting rooms are staffed based on customer traffic, you may find more associates in the fitting rooms than you have rooms available for customers. For such tasks, you may want to adjust the volume driver, tweak the sensitivity of the standard, turn it into a fixed task, or set maximum staffing for the task.

Before I go onto the sixth point, I want to say that while I think revisiting your labor model is important for the holidays, I do not advocate changing the steps in existing tasks just for this time of the year.  Retraining your existing workforce to do something differently for a short period of time is difficult, expensive and confusing.  The most likely outcome of such changes is people doing the work wrong.  Instead, the things mentioned above reduce hours in your labor forecast and can be easily communicated to your stores.

  1. Be the gatekeeper that your stores need. If things go well, your stores will be busy from November through January, and they will be struggling to keep pace. A deluge of one-off tasks such as unplanned markdowns, sign changes and last-minute promotions can knock well-running stores off balance. While some of this is inevitable, corporate can easily get carried away.  Your job – especially during the holidays – should be to help separate the urgent from the important to keep the stores focused on their most important job: serving your customers.

There is a little doubt that holiday hiring in this season will be difficult. Tuning your labor model, giving more hours to existing full-time and part-time associates and being a strong gatekeeper will help your stores make the most of a tight labor market.