Spread holiday cheer with seasonal employees

The year-end holidays bring many things to mind - Christmas carols, crowded aisles and ringing cash registers among them.

Unfortunately, not every image is a happy one. Maybe you're among the many retailers who dread holiday seasons when their stores have too few employees to service the spike in customers.

Shoppers who feel inconvenienced by inadequate service, of course, go elsewhere. Indeed, they can remember their discontent for a long time, depressing your profits for years.

The good news is that you can take steps this year to get the help you need. "Retailers that do the best in the holiday season understand that part-timers are valuable employees," says Terri Kabachnik, CEO of the Kabachnik Group, a consulting firm in Largo, Fla.

Hiring great part-timers, though, can be difficult: You must attract promising candidates without devoting too much of your valuable time to a complicated talent hunt.

Here's how to design a hiring program that works.

Cast A Wide Net

There's nothing like a big selection of available help to make the season bright. Start building a list of part timers by asking your current employees for referrals.

"Your existing personnel already know how you want customers treated," says Murray Raphel, president of Raphel Marketing, Atlantic City, N.J. "Ask your employees if they have any cousins, aunts or uncles who interact with people in the same pleasant way."

There's a side benefit to such referrals, adds Raphel: "Your current employees have a vested interest in assuring their suggested personnel perform well."

Employee referrals are great, but Raphel warns against relying on a single source of candidates. Here are more paths to pursue:

  • Last year's part-timers
  • Customers who enjoy your store and know your merchandise well - if they do not want to work, ask them if they know someone who does
  • High school guidance counselors who can recommend students
  • Retirees who would appreciate your interest in their expertise; contact your local AARP chapter
  • Your Web site and e-newsletter. Announce that you are looking for part-time talent
Finally, take a tip from Mel Kleiman, president of Humetrics, a Houston consultancy: "When you run into capable talent at businesses you visit, hand out recruiting cards that pose this question, 'Would you like to pick up some extra dollars for the holidays? Call us.'"

Interview Carefully

So you've built an impressive list of available talent. But which individuals will interact well with your customers and stimulate more sales?

"It's not so much finding people as finding the right people," says Kabachnik. "It's critical that the individuals you hire understand their jobs and the required behaviors."

The secret to picking the right people is smart interviewing. "Many employers shortchange the interview, figuring the seasonal employee will only be around for a short time," says Kabachnik. "But your customers don't differentiate between a part-time and a full-time employee."

Before you can conduct productive interviews you have to have a clear picture of the ideal employee, says Kleiman. Are you looking for someone who will run a cash register or someone who will interact with customers?

Whatever your overall goal, you need to reduce the picture to specific attributes for which you interview. Here's how: "Imagine yourself giving a part-timer an award for being the best employee of the season," suggests Kleiman. "Now picture what the person did to earn that award. Those are the things you want to interview for."

Here are some possible determinants of great performance:

  • Flexibility in working long hours
  • Willingness to volunteer for housekeeping duties
  • Pitching in to help fellow workers
  • Punctuality and willingness to work late
  • Positive attitude
  • Accuracy
  • Interaction with others
  • Quick thinking and decision-making
"Define the job on the behavior side, then look for behaviors that signify preferences," says Kabachnik.

Interview behavior can predict work performance. How does the person interact with you? That will give you an idea whether the person prefers to be working in a stockroom putting out merchandise or dealing directly with shoppers.

"One retailer was in the habit of counting the number of times a prospect smiled during an interview," says Raphel. "Applicants who hit the magic number were hired. Customers want to feel there are nice people at your store."

Posing questions that identify specific attributes will also help you keep from exaggerating the benefits of the position. "Don't oversell the job in the interview," says Kabachnik. "People get excited but then find it is not glamorous when they end up sweeping floors or folding merchandise. If the job is mundane be honest and conservative in how you describe the tasks. You can't have satisfied customers when you have dissatisfied employees."

Don't be your own worst enemy by letting false perceptions get in the way of facts. For example, the huge pool of available part-timers in their 50s, 60s and older are often overlooked by retailers who focus only on younger candidates. "Many younger managers are afraid to hire older people for fear they will not be able to learn technology or won't listen to directions," says Kabachnik. "Those stereotypes are often wrong. And older people may have held management positions and have tremendous experience. They are often more flexible and seek a sense of accomplishment."

Treat People Well

Once your part-timers are on board, treat them with respect by including them as vital gears in your profit machine. Invite them to staff meetings and seek their insights into improving operations. "Give your part-time workers good reasons to stay and enjoy what they are doing," says Kleiman. "If you inspire the good ones to come back next year, you will have minimum retraining costs."

Your part-timers will appreciate being treated as professionals rather than as invisible workers. Speak of them in a way that projects respect. "Many employers refer to part-time workers as 'coverage,' and that can be a real de-motivator," says Kabachnik.

Casting a wide net, conducting efficient interviews and integrating your part-time workers with your regular staff will go a long way toward assuring a profitable holiday season. A well-planned hiring campaign will land great people with minimal disruption to your regular retail activities.

One final thing: Start early. "The biggest mistake is to wait until the last minute," says Kleiman. "Then you have a case of desperation hiring. When you wait too long anything looks good."

Training the Holiday Worker

You want part-timers to satisfy your customers and bring credit to your store. But if you're like most retailers you do not have the time to do a lot of training.

What to do? One good idea is to pair each part-timer with a current employee who acts as a mentor, advising the new person on how to get things done.

And here's another training shortcut: put your expectations in writing. "Prepare a short little information sheet about your business," suggests Murray Raphel, president of Raphel Marketing, Atlantic City, N.J. "Explain your store's philosophy and how to talk with customers."

Here's what to include in your information sheet:

  • The importance of being on time
  • Whom to call in an emergency
  • How to respond to customer questions and complaints (win the customer, not the argument)
  • How to dress. If you want a conservative look without extreme clothing, say so. "The look of your employees has to reflect your store image," says Raphel. "Tell your employees, 'You are a walking advertisement for the store.'"

-P.P.

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