All shops want for Christmas: workers

Robust consumer spending and the lowest jobless rate in 30 years leave

At Brentano's Bookstore in Boston's Copley Place, workers have been flying out the door as fast as copies of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone."

In the past month, Beth Esser-Alaoui, the store manager, has seen four employees hired to work the holidays leave - she presumes because they were offered better pay or incentives elsewhere.

"It's very hard to get good employees - and keep them," says Ms. Esser-Alaoui, in what may be the mantra of the 1999 holiday shopping season.

From the neon expanses of southern California malls to the trendy boutiques of New York's Madison Avenue, America's retailers are scrambling to cover cash registers and stock shelves in the 10-day rush to Christmas.

Many are losing.

Across the country, stores find themselves squeezed by two inexorable forces: Robust consumer spending and the lowest jobless rate in 30 years. The result is some lost sales to the Internet - and a lot of customers who are finding they don't have the patience of Job.

"The lines are too long," says Omar Santiago, negotiating the crowds at an upscale mall in Boston's Back Bay. "The other day I was in Macy's looking for clothes for my daughter, and I asked to see a different size. The assistant never came back."

Beverly Brossman of Littleton, Colo., a Denver suburb, knows what he means. She recently drove to a local mall and circled the parking lot for 45 minutes. Unable to find a space, she went home, perturbed.

While the presence of so many buyers is certainly good for retailers - economists are estimating sales will be up about 6 percent this holiday season - the lack of seasonal help isn't.

For one thing, it is expected to push more people to buy their gifts in cyberspace. Estimates are that e-commerce will amount to $6 billion to $12 billion this year. Though that represents less than 1 percent of total retail spending, analysts believe that the more people try online shopping, the more habits will change.

Still, ordering flatware and a Nikon camera at the click of a keypad is not the same as being able to touch the products - or seeing the Christmas lights.

"People like to touch the fabric and smell the lotions," says Lisa DeMichele, who runs a Victoria's Secret Beauty Company in Boston. "They have to come in to do that."

The other concern retailers have about being understaffed is what it may mean for their reputations. Despite their short-term status, seasonal workers still represent the face of the company to consumers. A bad buying experience could keep them from coming through the doors again.

"The consumer might say, 'If you can't serve me, why should I come back when the rush is over?' " says Wendy Liebmann, president of WSL Strategic Retail in New York.

Ms. Brossman, for instance, recalls how workers at one candy store in the mall in Littleton would "gab and giggle" while customers waited. "They hire a lot of young people who don't know what they're doing," she says.

It's not that retailers didn't try to hire enough qualified help this year. Many started their recruiting drives early - in September and October.

They also had to be creative. United Parcel Service (UPS), for instance, scrambled to find an additional 90,000 workers to handle the holiday rush.

"In Chicago, we hosted rock concerts to attract and retain high school and college students," says Kristen Petrella, a spokeswoman for the Atlanta-based shipping company. "In Maryland and Washington D.C., we had tailgate parties at football games for the same purpose."

Others have been trying to lure and retain workers the old-fashioned way - with more money. The Body Shop, an international chain, offered employees a $1 an hour raise if they stayed with the company 10 days after Thanksgiving, and $2 an hour more if they're were still there two weeks before Christmas.

Williams-Sonoma, the popular kitchen outlet, gives holiday employees a 40 percent store discount and an hourly rate of $7 - well above the minimum wage.

Nor were rock bands enough for UPS: The company offered some workers an additional $1,300 if they would stay on the job through the end of December.

Other companies recruited on college, and even high school, campuses this year for the first time. A few offered college tuition reimbursements to employees.

At Lands' End, the outdoor clothing chain, executives tried to appeal as much to workers self image as their pocketbooks. The Wisconsin-based firm offered its 2,600 seasonal employees the same access to on-site fitness and day-care centers as its full-time employees.

The competition for temporary employees is painfully evident at the massive Galleria shopping mall in Glendale, Calif. Normally, the 250 shops and boutiques in the complex employ about 3,000 people. During the holidays, that rises to nearly 5,000. David Small, manager of the Galleria's JCPenney branch, says finding enough help this year has been the toughest time he has had in seven years at the store.

In the end, he succeeded in finding staffing - but only by recruiting early and offering unusual incentives, such as a 15 percent discount on store items.

While much attention is focused on the shopping crunch of the next 10 days, the labor shortage will not end when Christmas lights are put away in the attic. "It's a long-term problem caused not only by the tight labor market, but a mismatch between the kind of skills retailers need and the kind of skill needed in the labor pool," says Leonard Berry, director of the Center for Retailing Studies at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas.

*James Blair contributed to this report from Los Angeles.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.