A tight labor market has put the squeeze on US employers of all shapes, sizes, and sectors, but retailers are having a particularly hard time attracting associates and managers for their brick-and-mortar stores. Observing that retail hiring for the holiday season has been notably slower to start up this year, Reuters explores the causes of the retail sector’s talent crunch:
Sector observers have attributed this to brick-and-mortar retailers’ retreat under pressure from online players including Amazon, and firms themselves say they have simply taken a staggered approach to hiring this year that fills gaps slowly. Macy’s said holiday hiring was “off to a great start”. But staffing companies that hire employees for the industry say the problem is deeper and is putting pressure both on the quality of staff retailers can hire and, sooner or later, wages that potential candidates will demand. …
“Where we have a problem hiring is the lower level, the seasonal or entry-level employees,” said Melissa Hassett, vice president of client delivery for ManpowerGroup Solutions. Her clients include Lowe’s Cos Inc, Staples and auto parts firm Pep Boys and she says employees are seeking more flexibility with their schedules, training and pay, which is competitive with other entry-level jobs.
The competition from e-commerce has been visible in this year’s early holiday hiring numbers, where warehouse and fulfillment roles are making up a substantially larger share of the seasonal workforce. UPS and FedEx, for instance, are adding 95,000 and 50,000 staff, respectively, for the holidays, while Amazon and other e-commerce companies have ramped up hiring. Anticipating the need for these workers, some companies began recruiting them all the way back in the spring.
Since Walmart began a push to raise wages for its legion of store employees last year, leaders at the big box chain have attributed its solid performance to the greater investment they were making in their staff. And because Walmart is such an enormous actor in the US economy, its choices have ripple effects in the retail sector. Over at Quartz, Oliver Staley argues that while some see the company’s size as being a “malign force,” that doesn’t take into account how Walmart’s choices can be also be beneficial:
The company also has used its massive buying power to eliminate waste in packaged goods and to drive down the cost of energy-efficient light bulbs, speeding their widespread adoption. Raising wages can have an even bigger impact. Walmart employs one in 10 US retail workers, and one out of every 100 US private-sector employees. Just as the company forced competitors to hold the line on wages, increasing its pay is now pressuring rivals to match it.
Walmart also raised salaries for entry-level managers in response to the Obama administration’s now-defunct overtime rule last year, but at the bottom of the pay scale, seemingly small increases, say from $10 to $11 an hour, can make a big difference in the lives of the working poor. Walmart is such a huge employer, Staley points out, that its pay practices effectively set a benchmark for the rest of the retail industry, pressuring other retail giants like Target to commit to adopting a $15 minimum wage by 2020:
Starbucks has a reputation for taking good care of its store employees (or “partners” as it likes to call them), but it has nonetheless drawn some controversy this year regarding its paid parental leave program. Under a new policy announced earlier this year, new mothers who work at the coffee chain’s corporate offices are entitled to as much as 18 weeks of leave at full pay after giving birth, while fathers and adoptive parents get 12 weeks. Store employees working more than 20 hours a week and who have been with the company more than 90 days are allowed six weeks of paid medical leave upon giving birth, while those who adopt are eligible for a six-week adoption allowance, both at 100 percent of their average weekly pay.
Even though these benefits are much better than what most hourly retail and service employees in the US enjoy, the policy raised questions about why corporate employees were entitled to so much more. In August, the Guardian’s Molly Redden highlighted the impact of this disparity on store employees, noting that Starbucks is not alone among major US companies in offering more generous parental leave benefits to their corporate employees than to their front-line staff. Now, Redden reports, a group of investors led by Zevin Asset Management is pressuring Starbucks to tell its shareholders whether this discrepancy might constitute employment discrimination:
“Paid family leave is a huge factor in how well women can stay involved in the workforce after having a baby, or how much time out they have to take in their careers,” said Pat Tomaino, Zevin’s associate director of socially responsible investing. “Women and their families benefit from equal and generous paid family leave – but companies do too.”
Target announced on Monday that it would raise the minimum hourly wage for store employees to $11 next month, with an aim to raise its pay floor to $15 an hour by the end of 2020. The move reflects the retail giant’s efforts to turn around its sales performance and compete for talent in a tight market with high turnover, Fortune’s Phil Wahba reports:
“Making this investment in our Target team will allow us to continue to recruit and retain strong team members to serve our guests,” Target CEO Brian Cornell told reporters on a media call last week. Target said the raises would affect “thousands” of workers but remained vague on specifics. The company employs some 323,000 people year round and this year, is ramping up its holiday period hiring with 100,000 seasonal staff for the run up to Christmas, a 43% increase over last year. The higher wages will apply to seasonal workers as well.
In its most recent quarter, Target said comparable sales rose 1.3%, better than expected, and shopper store visits rose 2.1% even as e-commerce grew 32%, suggesting its strategy of blending stores and digital sales is working. Target has invested heavily in new store areas for pickup of online orders, parts of the store that require dedicated staff, as does the section of the store that fills online orders with that store’s inventory. Target has also assigned dedicated staff for its apparel and beauty areas so they can give better informed advice to shoppers, part of its efforts to improve the shopping experience in its stores.
These moves reflect broader trends in the big-box retail market, with industry leader Walmart making similar moves. Walmart has also been investing heavily in online shopping, acquiring the e-tail startup Jet.com last summer and hiring Jet CEO Marc Lore to run its entire e-commerce operation. It likewise aims to leverage its army of store employees to improve efficiency and customer service in its e-commerce business, and has credited its strong performance in recent years to investments it has made in its workforce.
As the advent of the gig economy has highlighted the precarious nature of many non-salaried workers’ incomes, predictable scheduling has practically eclipsed the minimum wage as the labor rights cause of the day, both in the US and in other countries. In the past year, we’ve seen cities like Seattle and New York pass “secure scheduling” laws mandating guaranteed hours for certain classes of hourly employees, and Oregon is on its way to becoming the first state with such legislation.
That many Americans work unpredictable hours from week to week is not in dispute, but opponents of these mandates argue that they impose unreasonable burdens on employers in industries like retail and food service where turnover is high and demand is naturally unpredictable. There is also some debate over just how big a problem variable scheduling is. A recent Gallup survey, for example, finds that among the one in six US employees who are paid hourly and say their hours vary each week, 67 percent say their variable schedules are not causing them financial hardship:
These results are based on interviews conducted Aug. 23-Sept. 4 with 528 hourly workers who say the number of hours they work each week varies. Thirty-seven percent of all hourly workers — equivalent to 18% of all U.S. workers — say the number of hours they work varies from week to week, while the rest say their hours are fixed.
Amazon rocked the grocery world on Friday when the e-commerce giant announced that it had sealed a deal to acquire Whole Foods Market for $13.7 billion. The news sent the stocks of competitor grocery chains tumbling, indicating the degree to which investors expect this move to shake up the industry. However, the Washington Post’s Abha Bhattarai notes, “some analysts say Amazon is likely to face significant challenges as it expands into a notoriously difficult business with low profit margins”:
Amazon and Whole Foods are very different businesses: One is a technology company that wins over customers with sophisticated algorithms and low prices. The other, nicknamed “Whole Paycheck,” is known for the premiums it charges for specialty foods and its workplace culture that compensates cashiers and other staffers well. Both are led by hard-charging entrepreneurs who have spent decades turning their companies into iconic, multibillion-dollar businesses.
Similar questions were asked last year when Walmart acquired the e-tail startup Jet.com, as part of its own effort to compete with Amazon: How well will these two companies, with their very different cultures and business models, be able to integrate? But these differences between Amazon and Whole Foods may be part of what makes this acquisition such a game-changer, Slate’s Will Oremus figures:
Suddenly Amazon owns a nationwide network of already-popular grocery stores that have already solved the tricky logistical problems involved in sourcing and storing fresh food. What Amazon brings is the world’s largest online sales portal and its mastery of the home-delivery business. Scale, meet scale. Logistics, meet logistics. Loyal customer base, meet loyal customer base. If you’re in the grocery business and your name is not Amazon or Whole Foods, today is not a good day for you.
Walmart’s acquisition of the e-tail startup Jet.com last summer and hiring of Jet CEO Marc Lore to run its entire e-commerce operation indicated that the retail giant was looking to make a big push into this sector and offer Amazon its first genuine competitor. Now, Walmart is piloting a program to leverage its massive brick-and-mortar infrastructure and retail staff to augment its e-commerce business by having store employees make last-mile deliveries of online orders, TechCrunch reported last week:
The idea is an expansion on the retailer’s recently launched 2-day shipping program, which lets customers order from over 2 million online items for fast delivery without an annual membership. The company said it realized those same trucks could just as easily bring any Walmart.com or Jet.com ship-to-home orders to its stores, then allow the local staff to drive the packages to customers’ homes.
The test started small. Launched in April, there are only two stores in New Jersey and one in northwest Arkansas that are running this program today. But Walmart is already touting how the early results are promising. For store employees who opt to sign up to do deliveries, it’s a way to earn extra cash – often just by expanding their commute home a bit. … A lot of technology has gone into the development of this program, hinting that this test is being seriously considered as an alternative way to handle last-mile deliveries at scale.
The company is presenting this move as part of an employee-centered approach to its e-commerce operation. At its shareholder meeting on Friday, according to Reuters, Walmart executives indicated that they were aiming to drive more online sales without alienating their employees: