It’s no secret that the retail industry is hurting for workers, along with other service industries. The pandemic revealed that what used to be considered low-paying and even dead-end jobs are truly essential workers in a consumer-driven economy.
The COVID crisis inspired employees to embrace their worth as essential and to express a desire to get paid what they were worth. Now, with the holidays fast approaching, supply chain bottlenecks, and consumers set to get out there and buy, retailers are adopting a relatively new-to-them strategy to attract workers: wage hikes and bonuses. But will it be enough, and will it be in time?
In a sentence that used to be revered only by alcoholics and smokers, the phrase “I quit” has become the watchword of what, for some, is becoming a critical shortage. In fact, a record 4.4 million people quit their jobs in September.
Why? Well, workers have reevaluated the very nature of work in what has been called the “Great Resignation” and many are looking for higher pay, better benefits, and a more respected position.
There’s another factor as well: inflation, which many thought to be transitory, appears to be here to stay, and with record housing costs still steadily rising, workers need to make more money just to make ends meet.
This puts retailers in a position of a new kind of competition: competing for employees in a tight labor market.
The competition is stiff too, and big companies who can afford it are pulling out the big guns. Amazon is offering seasonal jobs with wages of $18 an hour and $3,000 bonuses in some areas for fulfillment and transportation workers. But it’s not just about wages.
Employees are struggling to find childcare in part due to a shortage of workers in that industry. If they do find daycare, waiting lists and costs can be prohibitive. Retail workers, often insulted and even abused by customers who don’t want to abide by local mask ordinances and who are more exposed to the virus than anyone, are even looking for hazard pay. “I think the mood of a lot of workers is one of like we’re on our last nerve with all of this,” says Adam Ryan, liaison for Target Workers United and a Target Employee.
The biggest victim? Small businesses that need essential workers to stay in business, but can’t match the pay and benefit packages the giants can. But if it isn’t just about money, what do employees really want?
Not only are retailers competing with each other, but they are up against an increasing number of companies offering remote work, training incentives, and more to attract workers. One study by Promoleaf and Censuswide shows that 70% of workers consider perks other than salary when job hunting, and cited lack of support, feeling overworked, and lack of recognition as their reason for being dissatisfied with their current jobs.
These are all common complaints in the retail industry, where workers often face unpredictable schedules, lack of access to healthcare, low wages, and lack of recognition by both their employers and the general public.
Money and bonuses are clearly not enough. Employers in retail and other spaces must reconsider what work looks like for their employees, define perks their employees want, and do it quickly. Will it be in time to make this holiday season run smoothly? If we look at our Magic 8-Ball, we’ll see an outcome of “Not Likely”.
Seasonal and temporary work has always had a certain appeal. A few extra hours for a few extra bucks may get some extra gifts for the family or maybe a stepping stone to a new job. But in an employee-driven market, temporary work doesn’t have that same appeal. Job seekers, the few there are, are looking for a longer-term opportunity that better suits their lifestyle.
As a result, those who do take holiday jobs in retail or other fields are more likely to stay on long-term. Employers need employees they can count on, and temporary workers and even teens are becoming more appealing. Teens and college students are more flexible, can work evenings and weekends, and have lower salary expectations. But are there enough of them to satisfy the hungry holiday demand?
The demand is significant. The last thing a retailer wants to do is miss out on a sale or send away a customer angry. But as Black Friday looms, many wonder if the wage hikes and perks will be enough to smooth out this holiday season. “You’re going to learn in three to six months what worked and what didn’t,” Mark Matthews of the National Retail Foundation says. “Right now, the best retailers can do is to make sure they leave no stone unturned and try anything.”
And that’s really the best advice. Otherwise, retailers could face a truly Black Friday, and one some may find it challenging to recover from.