How retailers are finding and retaining a talented workforce

Broader recruiting, simplified hiring, higher wages and stronger benefits all play a part
Sandy Smith
NRF Contributor

Those “help wanted” signs might need a more permanent affixing. With unemployment at the lowest rate in 50 years and the labor participation rate also in decline, finding retail workers is a challenge, especially during the busy holiday hiring season.

More and more, holiday hiring is serving as a pipeline to year-round work, raising the stakes even higher.

Holiday Hiring

NRF expects retailers to hire between 450,000 and 600,000 seasonal workers this holiday season. See more of NRF's holiday forecast here.

Retailers are responding with simpler and faster hiring processes, broader recruiting methods, higher wages and an array of benefits. And it’s starting to make a difference.

“Overall, our staffing is stronger heading into this holiday season than it was last year,” says Maren Waggoner, senior vice president, field people operations at Walmart U.S. “Like in previous years, we’ll give our current associates the first opportunity to work additional hours if they want to earn extra money for the holidays. From there, we’re strategically hiring seasonal associates to help with the busy holiday season and that number will vary from store to store, depending on each store’s individual needs.”

Not just seasonal

Speed is the name of the game when it comes to holiday hiring, says John Patterson, vice president of talent at Macy’s Inc. Patterson says applications take as little as five minutes and the majority of job offers are made within 48 hours. That doesn’t mean the retailer cuts corners, however.

Macy's Stock Room

“While our application process is quick, we’re asking questions that matter. Last year, this enhanced, centralized hiring process allowed us to hire fewer colleagues of higher talent levels with more competitive pay who stayed on, resulting in a 40% reduction in turnover.”

Walmart also has felt the need for speed, Waggoner says. The Me@Walmart hiring app allows candidates to apply from their phones while the overall hiring process can take as little as 24 hours.

Macy’s also is moving fast when it comes to identifying associates that it would like to keep beyond the holidays, Patterson says. “We used to wait until the end of the holiday season to place colleagues in permanent openings. Now, we convert promising colleagues immediately into open permanent roles.” In 2021, that meant more than 10,300 seasonal colleagues were hired permanently at Macy’s.

But finding those colleagues in the first place has required a new way of thinking. “This holiday season, we are testing new strategies with our job listings,” Patterson says. “We use a centralized sourcing team to maximize the visibility of our most critical roles. Regardless of how we’re reaching candidates, a key element of our colleague recruiting is timing. We’re focused on advertising roles when we need them, strategically timing our recruiting efforts to when we need the colleague.”

Dollars and sense

Retailers across the board have raised their hourly wages to remain competitive.

“We’ve been continuously investing in higher wages the last few years,” says Dawn Gilmore, head of talent acquisition for The Kroger Co. “During that time, we’ve raised pay for over 1 million hourly store associates and increased our U.S. average hourly wage to more than $17. We’ll continue to raise wages.”

As everyone raises wages, though, the hourly rate is no longer the differentiator. Benefits can be an important driver. At The Kroger Co., tuition reimbursement — from GED courses to PhD programs — has been a popular benefit. The company has invested $31.2 million over time, with 87% of recipients being store associates, Gilmore says.

Kroger associate and customer at checkout

Walmart also offers tuition reimbursements and allows its associates to save money on gas and delivery through free membership in its Walmart+ program.

They are in line with an overall trend in the industry, says Adam Lukoskie, vice president of the National Retail Federation Foundation. “Right now, tuition reimbursement is a competitive advantage in recruiting. As more brands make this more common for their hourly workforce, it might become more of an expectation than a wow factor. We’re still several years from that.”

Kroger associates also get perks like discounts on groceries, electronics and cell phones.

Even more traditional benefits — like health insurance — are seeing upgrades, Waggoner says. Medical coverage starts at $31.40 per paycheck and includes no-cost counseling sessions. “We recently announced improved access to fertility, surrogacy and adoption support, which our associates have told us is a priority for them and their families. That includes adding Kindbody as the service provider for our new Center of Excellence for family-building benefits, including in vitro fertilization, among other services.” Associates have a lifetime max of $20,000 for eligible surrogacy and adoption expenses.

The intangibles

Walmart associate

Keeping workers, however, is not always tied to pay or benefits. “We know that one of the biggest factors in an associate’s decision to stay with the company is their relationship with their manager,” Waggoner says. “That’s why we’ve continued to invest in leadership training for our managers. In fact, our new Manager Academy brings new store managers to Bentonville (Ark.) for a multi-day course in leadership that’s designed to help them reground in our mission and return energized ready to go with ideas and best practices.”

Managers understand what the associates go through, since 75% of salaried managers in the U.S. started their careers as hourly workers, Waggoner says. “We work hard to promote a culture of growth and development, and we encourage managers to talk with associates about their career goals so they can identify resources to reach them.”

When Walmart founder Sam Walton would visit stores, he carried a yellow notepad to jot down comments and ideas he would hear. Today, Walmart leaders take notes on their phones, “but their commitment to visiting stores and hearing directly from associates has never been stronger.” It’s not a one-way street: The Me@Walmart app includes a platform that allows associates to submit ideas for any part of the business.

“We’ve seen thousands of ideas come in already,” Waggoner says, “and have put many of them into action to improve the experience for both associates and customers.”

Building a future

One of the key components to keeping employees is a career path. Kroger created a five-week early talent series to spotlight opportunities throughout the company, Gilmore says. The program highlights “our internship experience, diversity initiatives and how each department operates with insights from current interns and Kroger leaders.”

While retailers have their own internal training programs, NRF Foundation’s RISE Up program aims to bring in trained associates from the start, Lukoskie says. The program’s partners include high schools, community colleges and work force organizations to help participants train for their first retail job. Four different credentials are available.

“Folks who do have this credential are coming in with a better sense of the day-to-day, so they’re more easily able to self-select in,” Lukoskie says. “They know what they’ll be doing and have a better overall sense of the industry and how they fit.”

Some 94% of credential holders say it helped them feel more confident in applying for jobs, while 92% say the credential would help with future career success. It also provides a sense of career options, Lukoskie says. “The curriculum can help them find their career paths. While each brand has different promotional requirements and pathways, people can understand the concepts and can ask questions of a future employer.”

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