How are retailers gearing up for the Christmas period in terms of recruitment at a time of labour shortages and a cost of living crisis? Annie Hayes reports.
Recruiting a temporary and seasonal workforce ahead of the festive season is not without its challenges and, together with a labour shortage driven by Brexit, Covid and other factors and many workers responding to an ever-present cost of living crisis by demanding higher pay and choosing permanent positions over transient ones, it has been made ever tougher. Workingmums.co.uk spoke with two retail giants, John Lewis/Waitrose and The Works, a discount retailer selling books, art and craft materials, gifts, toys and stationery, about how they are meeting the internal demand for temporary, quality staff.
This autumn an extra 10,000 staff are being recruited across the Waitrose and John Lewis shops and its distribution networks. This comprises 4,000 roles across its 331 Waitrose shops, including supermarket assistants, night shift workers and customer delivery drivers, 2,000 roles across the 34 John Lewis stores, including sales and merchandising positions, and a further 4,000 roles in its supply chain, including warehouse workers and drivers to support the online orders.
Imogen Haikney, Resourcing Manager for the John Lewis Partnership, said: “Recruitment is really competitive this year, so businesses will be thinking about how they can stand out. While we’re fortunate to be a well-known and trusted employer, we’ve also introduced benefits like free meals and increased wages – both to help against the cost of living, and to act as extra incentives in a competitive market. We’ll also have flexible hours to work around people’s other commitments wherever possible.”
It’s a similar story at The Works who have made their recruiting efforts candidate-focussed to ensure that dictated shift hours can be as flexible as possible. The business, which has advertised 127 seasonal retail positions since mid-September and is looking to hire an additional 120 agency workers for its distribution centre, has, as a first step, offered additional hours to existing staff as a sign that they appreciate that the cost of living is hitting many of its current workers hard.
Debbie Jamieson, People Director at The Works, said: “This year we have initially focused on ensuring that our current colleagues can work any additional hours they need to supplement their income over our peak trading period. We are now also advertising additional temporary roles and are keen that our seasonal colleagues are able to pick up additional hours should they wish to do so.”
By allowing candidates to work hours that suit them and asking them which hours they can work, The Works have been pleasantly surprised by the response to their recruitment campaigns. Jamieson added: “We are delighted by this response (10,000 applicants have shown an interest in seasonal roles so far) and we have supported this by adapting our approach to allow potential candidates to specify their availability, which we have ensured is prominent in our adverts to support transparency for candidates.”
John Lewis/Waitrose told workingmums.co.uk that getting back to candidates quickly has been key to filling its positions. Haikney said: “We’re still seeing strong demand for roles – in fact, visits to our careers website more than quadrupled after we announced our Christmas vacancies, so interest is high. We want to give candidates quick responses to make sure we’re getting the best talent before they’re snapped up elsewhere! As a result, we are making improvements on our time to offer.”
With many workers now facing higher everyday costs and an expectation that their mortgage payments may increase as interest rates are raised, seasonal positions don’t appeal to everyone and permanent work is more in demand. The Works have responded to this with extending contracts where possible. Jamieson said: “It has always been more difficult to find agency workers so we have had to engage more than one agency to fulfill our requirements (in the distribution centre). Recently we have seen increased levels of turnover as people move on to longer-term jobs after a short period of time. However, at The Works our people are fundamental to our success and we try to turn temporary roles into permanent ones wherever we can.”
Brexit has also had its impact on labour shortages. Jamieson added: “We have not seen an impact on the availability of temporary labour specifically, but where Brexit has had a real impact is on recruitment for our distribution centre which we are heavily reliant on agency staff for. Pre-Brexit, 50-60% of our agency workers were European. However, this number has fallen significantly and has had a knock-on effect on the availability of labour generally.”
John Lewis/Waitrose suggest that recruitment difficulties are down to a mixture of reasons, including the availability of international labour as well as low national unemployment rates and some workers exiting the workforce during the Covid pandemic and not re-entering.
Just like the free meals that John Lewis/Waitrose offers, The Works is also incentivising candidates with 25% staff discounts off their products which they can in turn use to reduce their Christmas expenditure at a time when it is welcome.
Both retailers have also re-evaluated the need for the amount of experience they ask of their candidates. At the Works, Jamieson said: “We aren’t always looking for lots of experience. Instead we look for people that display our core values: an ability to be crafty, to always be caring and to have a can-do attitude.”
It’s a similar approach at John Lewis/Waitrose. Haikney continued: “We want to provide the best customer experience – whether that’s exceptional service in store, or an efficient and friendly home delivery. That’s why we look for potential over experience; it helps us find Partners who are comfortable interacting with customers and go the extra mile to help keep improving our customer service.”
Above all it’s the importance of having an evolving and flexible recruitment approach. Responding to the external environment and what candidates want is key. At John Lewis/Waitrose this is embedded at the core. Haikney said: “Now more than ever, we recognise the importance of being flexible – whether that’s tweaking someone’s shift patterns to accommodate their family commitments, or recommending someone for a different job to that they’ve applied for.”
It’s an attitude that The Works have also focused upon. “The recruitment process should be quick and simple, not overengineered,” said Jamieson. “Do you really need people with two years’ retail experience? Or people who can just deliver an amazing customer experience in an exciting festive period whilst offering support to your permanent workforce?”
It’s this acceptance that experience doesn’t necessarily deliver the best candidates and that seasonal staff need work to work for them in terms of hours, pay and benefits that is ensuring these two major retailers won’t be short staffed in one of their highest-grossing periods of the calendar.
*Annie Hayes is an experienced business journalist whose area of expertise is HR, employment and employment law. Annie is CIPD qualified and also writes for B2B publications. She is additionally the author of The Time The Children Didn’t Go To School, a collection of Covid diaries relating to homeschooling and the realiities working parents faced during the lockdowns. The book is available on Amazon. You can find details of John Lewis’ Christmas jobs here.