Stores scrambling for workers as busiest season approaches

Even higher pay yet to fill the bill for area retailers

Retailing

November 14, 1999|By Amanda J. Crawford | Amanda J. Crawford,SUN STAFF

The signs at White Marsh Mall say it all: Help Wanted.

More than half of the 180 stores have openings, and the entrances and store windows beckon applicants with promises of "flexible" hours and "generous" discounts.

The problem isn't limited to White Marsh Mall. Retailers -- both in Maryland and nationally -- face a worker shortage. It comes at a critical time, when they need to bulk up for the holiday shopping swell.

Officially, the season lasts five weeks -- from Thanksgiving to the end of December -- and accounts for up to 25 percent of retail sales, according to Tom Saquella, president of the Maryland Retailers Association. Many stores are already pushing holiday sales.

Saquella estimates that stores in Maryland will need to hire 7,500 to 10,000 seasonal employees to handle the crush in holiday customers. But with state unemployment at a record low, 3.3 percent, retailers are having difficulty finding workers.

A job fair held in September by the Maryland Retailers Association illustrated the problem: attendance was only 150, compared with 700 last year, Saquella said.

"For the last three years, retailers have had significant challenges primarily because of the economy and low unemployment," said Bruce Van Kleeck, vice president of member services for the National Retail Federation. "This year is probably the most challenging of all. The economic situation is causing people to spend, so retailers are looking to hire more people."

In the highly competitive job market, retailers have had to increase wages to compete with other industries.

Locally, starting wages average $6 to $8 an hour, an increase of more than $1 an hour over last year, Saquella said.

Some retailers are paying even more. The Container Store, which has a store in Rockville, starts holiday workers at $9 or $10 an hour.

"It's definitely on the higher end," said Elizabeth Barrett, vice president of operations for the Container Store. "We're trying to overcome the retail stigma that retail doesn't pay very well."

Some retailers are offering bonuses to lure people. Lord & Taylor in White Marsh gave early recruits a $200 signing bonus, which they collect after the Christmas season. Even that wasn't enough -- when the bonus program ended Nov. 3, the store had filled little more than half of its need, said Elaine Harris, human resources manager.

Lord & Taylor has also provided incentives to encourage its current employees to help out with the recruitment effort.

Employees receive a lottery ticket worth $2 to $10 for each per- son they get to fill out an application. If the applicant is hired, the recruiting employee gets an additional $50, Harris said.

The competition for workers is so keen that "companies are recruiting customers, shopping the competition for workers and taking them from outside the retail industry," said Van Kleeck of the National Retail Federation.

At the J. Crew store in The Gallery, hiring manager Robert Bacon said he has been recruiting at local high schools and colleges, as well as from law firms and other businesses, where professionals might be interested in earning extra holiday cash and getting a store discount.

Bacon said he needs to double his staff for the holidays by hiring 15 to 20 people. The store offers employees a 50 percent discount on up to 16 items and 30 percent discount beyond that, but he has hired only two seasonal employees so far.

"Everybody is hiring, so you have to be competitive," he said.

Betty Lee, manager of Gia & Co. in downtown Baltimore, said the store is seeing "lots of mall rats" apply and few serious applicants.

Competition for experienced workers is steep.

"We have a lot of problems with people trying to steal employees," Lee said. "We have other managers coming in and soliciting."

Saquella said the practice of raiding the competition for workers has become increasingly common.

"If you have to fill positions, you go to the people who are working [elsewhere] and offer them something better, because there are very few people not working who want to work," he said.

Target Stores have turned to technology to assist in the hiring crunch.

Computer/telephone kiosks are set up in each store where potential employees can fill out an electronic application. Unqualified individuals -- such as those who can't work weekends or are under 16 -- are weeded out in just a few minutes.

It takes other applicants about 40 minutes to complete the process.

The computer then matches their experience with available positions in the store and sets them up for on-the-spot interviews.

"If we had the kiosk system last year, we would have been able to hire qualified people more readily," said Shelba Stanford, hiring manager at Target in Owings Mills. "Before it took almost three weeks to hire one person, now it takes less than one week."

J. Crew's Bacon said the market is forcing retailers to sell more than merchandise.

"Finding good people is really hard," Bacon said. "I really have to sell my company to people who are looking for jobs at this point."

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