KRWG

How understaffed are stores? Smaller retailers feel the holiday-shopping strain

Nov 27, 2021
Originally published on November 27, 2021 8:23 am

Holiday shopping season is always high-stakes for Saxon Shoes in Virginia — a time when people shop for several pairs at once and splurge on pricy winter boots.

This year came with extra worries: Would shoppers return after a pandemic freeze? Would Saxon's shoes get snared in the supply chain mess? And then, the question that turned out to be key: Would there be enough workers?

"We probably had six or seven out of every ten interviews not show up — make an appointment and then not show up for an interview," says CEO Gary Weiner.

Weiner has been at Saxon Shoes since he was a baby in a bassinet — his parents founded the store in Richmond in the 1950s. These days, Weiner's grandchildren pop by for weekly lunches. He's been at it long enough to know it's normal for a few applicants to ghost. But a majority?

The Great Resignation hit retail like a tidal wave during the pandemic. Workers have quit at record or near record rates — over coronavirus fears, angry customers, hectic schedules or pay that was lower than unemployment benefits temporarily boosted by the federal government.

Last month, even Amazon said that its primary constraint, for the first time, was the lack of available workers rather than warehousing space.

Large retailers have attacked the staffing problem with massive hiring campaigns and new perks like triple-digit signing bonuses, free college tuition and suddenly, higher wages.

Now Amazon and other major companies like Walmart, Target, Best Buy and Home Depot say they're fine for the holidays.

Many small stores are not. They find themselves competing for workers not only against the deep-pocketed giants, but also restaurants and warehouses. And this year, everyone needs more workers than ever before — because shoppers have flooded back with record spending.

Marc Sherman, owner of Stowe Mercantile in Vermont, discovered he needed more staff over the past year as business surged both online and in store. He raised wages and spent months advertising full-time jobs to no avail. For many workers, it wasn't just about the money, but also flexibility.

So after 35 years of pursuing full-timers, Sherman has switched to a new approach. Stowe Mercantile is now all about piecing together part-timers.

"Now our schedule changes (so much), it's a little dizzying at times for me," he says. "But if we're going to be successful ... we have to adapt."

Back in Virginia, Saxon Shoes also tried a new tack: offering referral bonuses to current employees. That did produce a few new hires of retired teachers. But then, despite the shipping crisis, the merchandise kept arriving and so did the shoppers, returning at pre-pandemic levels or even higher. The store still doesn't have enough staff to meet all the demand.

"I wouldn't be surprised if we're not leaving 15% of our potential (holiday) sales on the table because we just don't have the manpower," Weiner says. At Saxon, sales depend on each customer getting personal attention from a salesperson. Not enough workers means some potential buyers will leave empty-handed.

At stores that are short-staffed, those employees who remain — and often, the owners themselves — end up picking up more work.

That's true at 36 Lyn Refuel Station, a gas station and convenience store in Minneapolis. Co-owner Lonnie McQuirter says he's raised wages, offered bonuses and spent over $2,000 on recruiting. He'd like to have a dozen or more workers, but now, has only nine.

"It's not a surprise that that's going on," McQuirter says. The pandemic has been difficult for everyone, he explains, especially for workers on the front lines and especially in his city, which is still healing from the murder of George Floyd and the unrest that followed.

McQuirter says it's noteworthy that workers do still clock in for their shifts, given how few people acknowledge the hard work that many frontline employees have done across the board.

"It's asking a lot of someone's character," he says.

A little while ago, McQuirter made T-shirts for his employees and customers. "The whole world is short staffed right now," the shirts say, "be kind to those who showed up."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Shoppers are reportedly going all-out this holiday season, while retail workers continue to walk away from their jobs. This has become a particular problem for smaller stores, which scramble to serve customers and worry their way through the key shopping season. NPR's Alina Selyukh reports.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Back in the '50s, a couple from Virginia started a little shoe store, tucking their son into a bassinet in the basement. Now that son, Gary Weiner, is the second-generation owner, running Saxon Shoes with his own children.

GARY WEINER: Fourth generation is eating lunch here with me a couple of times a week. Those are my grandchildren.

SELYUKH: Holiday season is a huge deal. Time for pricey winter boots and people buying several pairs at once, Weiner had worried if shoppers would return, if his shoes would get stuck in the supply chain mess and instead...

WEINER: With this point, we're definitely understaffed and unable to fill those positions.

SELYUKH: His shoppers have returned. He's wrangled enough supplies to fill tens of thousands of square feet with sandals and socks, stilettos and sneakers. But prospective hires have been ghosting him.

WEINER: Six or seven out of every 10 applicants didn't even show for the interview.

SELYUKH: The great resignation hit retail like a tidal wave. Over the past year, workers quit over coronavirus fears, angry customers, frantic schedules. Many realized their jobs paid less than boosted unemployment. Small stores found themselves competing for workers not only against giant, deep-pocketed rivals, but also restaurants and warehouses. And this year, everyone needs more workers than ever before because shoppers have flooded back. Here's Marc Sherman, who owns Stowe Mercantile General Store in Vermont.

MARC SHERMAN: We've needed more staff because our in-store business is up significantly. Plus, our online presence and sales are up significantly.

SELYUKH: Sherman spent months advertising full-time jobs to no avail. For many workers, it wasn't just about the money, but also flexibility. So now, after 35 years of pursuing full-time staff, Stowe Mercantile is all about piecing together part-timers.

SHERMAN: Now our schedule changes. It's a little dizzying at times for me, but if we're going to be successful and provide great service, we really need to work with every employee to work with their schedule needs.

SELYUKH: Last month, even Amazon said for the first time, its primary constraint was the lack of available workers rather than warehousing space. The large retailers have attacked the problem with money and mass hiring campaigns, with triple-digit signing bonuses, free college tuition and suddenly higher wages. Now major companies like Amazon, Target, Best Buy, Home Depot - they say they're fine for the holidays. Here's Walmart CEO Doug McMillon last week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DOUG MCMILLON: When the stimulus dollars started to go away, the hiring situation changed faster. We saw people could come back. In a matter of weeks, we were back to being staffed.

SELYUKH: Meanwhile, smaller stores or chains are short-staffed. At Saxon Shoes in Virginia, Weiner says shoppers are back to pre-pandemic numbers, while his staff count is behind by about 20%. His stores rely on workers giving personal attention to each shopper for a commission. With fewer salespeople, some potential buyers will leave empty handed.

WEINER: I wouldn't be surprised if we're not leaving, you know, 15% of our potential sales on the table because we just don't have the manpower.

SELYUKH: The other side of it is that the workers who are employed and small store owners themselves end up picking up more work. That's true for Lonnie McQuirter, who owns a gas station and convenience store called 36 Lyn in Minneapolis. Ideally, he needs a dozen or more workers but now has nine.

LONNIE MCQUIRTER: It's not a surprise that that's going on. It really is a surprise the people that are still there and why no one's really acknowledging the hard work that a lot of frontline employees have done across the board.

SELYUKH: A little while ago, McQuirter made T-shirts for his staff and for shoppers to buy.

MCQUIRTER: And it says the world is short-staffed right now. Be kind to those that show up.

SELYUKH: Because kindness does not have to be in short supply. Alina Selyukh, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.