Managing Seasonal Employees

Where do seasonal specialty retailers go to find employees? Where everyone else does: the Internet. Although big-name sites like or might work well for larger retailers with multiple locations, sometimes the best option for smaller retailers is a local community site like the local newspaper or, a site that’s partitioned according to geography—and it’s free (at least for now). Another free resource is your mall’s website. Ask your leasing manager how to place an ad on the center’s site and contact potential hires for follow-up.

Internet aside, word-of-mouth advertising is key. Tell friends and family that you’re looking for salespeople (or support staff) for the upcoming holiday season. Spread the word within your social organizations or networking groups. Talk with other merchants in the mall, but don’t steal employees from other retailers. It’s just not nice and may come back to haunt you.

However, sharing employees has worked well for many specialty retailers. An employee looking for full-time hours can split time between two cart owners who only need a part-time employee, for example. Along those same lines, sometimes a Halloween retailer might give a Christmas retailer a list of the best employees who will be looking for work after Halloween. Team up with other retailers to create employee synergy; it’s a much better strategy than poaching another retailer’s hires.

One routinely overlooked demographic is retirees, who often have free time, a good work ethic and maybe even highly polished sales skills. College or high-school students on break are an obvious choice and specialty retailers report good results from posting job openings on college campuses, in college newspapers and local newspapers read by the college audience.

Last but not least, post a professionally printed “Help Wanted” sign at your location (no hand-written signs, please!). Keep in mind that mall management needs to approve any signage, so check with management before hanging.

Interview with purpose

You might be nervous, thinking that you might have to settle for a warm body, but fight that urge and set high expectations up front in the interview. Be sure to cover:

Key responsibilities. Be clear and concise about what you expect from your sales force, starting with key responsibilities and daily duties. Review the written list point-by-point, stopping occasionally to ask if the interviewee has any questions.

Your company. Talk about your company, your products and your customers. Invite questions. Do the questions indicate the person is grasping what you’ve been saying? Do they indicate a certain business savvy you’re looking for?

Their skills. Ask potential hires to describe their business skills. Do those skills match the ones you’re looking for? Ask open-ended questions, such as “What did you like best about your last job?” “What did you like the least?” and “What challenges have you had to overcome in your previous job?” You’re not looking for a “right answer,” as much as information that’s just below the surface.

No matter what the topic, as you’re listening to the interviewee speak, ask yourself: Is this someone who can communicate with my customers? Does this person have the type of work attitude I’m looking for?

Train, train, train

Faced with high rates of employee turnover, some specialty retailers hesitate to train thoroughly. Pat Yates, president of Happy Feet/Animal Feet, which has grown from a single cart to 190 locations in 40 states and 3 foreign countries, says he was once asked by a specialty retailer, “What if I spend all this time training my employees and they leave?” to which Yates responded: “What if you don’t train them and they stay?”

The ultimate goal of your training program is to give your employees a selling language and knowledge they can use to sell with confidence. Here are the major categories you should focus on in your training program:

Product info. Give each employee detailed, written information on the products they will sell, including features (what the product does) and benefits (what the product does for the customer) and price points. If you want help gathering product information, call your vendors, who will be more than happy to send you detailed product descriptions and additional marketing materials.

Selling techniques. Don’t skip or gloss-over the training on basic selling techniques. Explain how to approach a customer, ascertain their buying needs, overcome buying objections and use appropriate prompts for add-on sales.

Customer service. From approaching a browsing customer to handling upset customers, your employees need to know how to interact with your customers before they’re confronted with these situations in the real retail world. Review possible scenarios to show your employees how you want your customers treated. Convey in clear terms that superior customer service is your #1 priority.

Business operations. Determine what your employees need to know about operations. Make a list of the items you need to cover, from how the cash register or POS system works to whom they should call if there’s a problem, to what you need every employee to do at the end of a shift. If they need to complete multiple tasks at the end of a shift (or week or month), make a checklist they can double-check so the details don’t get lost in the shuffle.

Shopping center rules. Make sure each employee fully understands and complies with the rules and regulations set forth by the shopping center(s) in which you operate. Violation of these rules will mean you’ll be spending time talking with mall management instead of focusing on holiday sales. You might even end up with a fine—or worse. Some violations can result in the termination of your license agreement.

Successful specialty retailers say that when an owner or manager works side by side with an employee, the employee is likely to pick up healthy retail habits and feel more like a team player. Employees will always look to the business owner for guidance, so practice what you preach.

Retention and motivation

The best way to retain good retail employees is to be flexible when scheduling. If an employee needs to request time off or is only available to work a specific number of hours per week, try to accommodate them. Post schedules at least a week in advance so your employees can make their own off-work plans and make any changes to their shifts in advance.

If possible, double staff during the busy season and on the weekends to ensure your location will be sufficiently staffed to handle the increased customer traffic. Double staffing also gives owners a chance to pair up experienced and inexperienced staff for more on-the-job training.

To keep employees motivated and improve your overall operations, remain open to employee suggestions. Employees are on the frontlines every day, so they know what’s working—and what isn’t. An alert employee may be your most valuable tool in discovering the right strategy to increase your profit potential. This is especially true if you have multiple locations and can’t be everywhere all the time (who can?).

Throughout the holiday season, don’t forget to reward your employees for a job well done. Offer incentives for hitting sales goals and up-selling. Catch your employees doing something right and praise them for it.

Offer rewards for employee recruitment, too. Often a top-performing employee will know of another motivated person who would be a good fit in your organization. If your current employees feel valued and appreciated, they will recommend your company to others. This word-of-mouth advertising can drastically improve your recruitment efforts and might even result in a ready-to-go sales team for next year.

As Mary Kay Ash, the founder of Mary Kay Cosmetics says: “A company is only as good as the people it keeps.”