While the holidays seem to start earlier and earlier every year, the rush of late November and December can't be denied. Next week will kick off the biggest holiday shopping season to date. Americans are expected to spend $682 billion, a 4 percent increase from last year, and retailers are preparing for the demand by hiring hundreds of thousands of seasonal employees.

While holiday recruiting starts as early as summer, hiring will continue through the end of the year. In fact, last year, U.S. retailers hired more than 140,000 seasonal employees in November and December (out of more than 700,000 total holiday hires). This year promises to be similarly busy, with big names like Target recently increasing their seasonal hiring count.

But with unemployment rates down and many holiday jobs already filled, the end of the year is a competitive time to hire top talent. While temporary employees may only be at the company for a few months or weeks, they should be as aligned with company practices and values as any full-time employee.

How should retailers attract and engage seasonal talent? I talked with three experts in retail to discuss their holiday hiring strategies and best advice for other brands this season.

1. Build Relationships

As a retailer, relationships with seasonal candidates aren't limited to the next two months--it's possible they could return full-time, or become a lifelong customer.

For Denise Domian, SVP of HR at national retailer Bon-Ton Stores, building long-term relationships with part-time employees should be foundational to every retailer's hiring strategy. Bon-Ton's onboarding process includes an overview of the company mission, vision and values, touching on the caring environment that should be created in interactions with both coworkers and customers.

The impact is telling: Bon-Ton hires between 10,000 and 13,000 seasonal employees a year--growing their full-time staff of 24,000 by 50 percent--yet they maintain a 40 percent retention rate.

"When I ask people, 'Tell me how you started with the company,' it's amazing how many of them tell me that they were seasonal hires and that, at the time, they had no intention of staying long-term," Domian says. "Once they come in, they become immersed in the culture and become familiar with the atmosphere--you know, working in a store is exciting."

2. Don't Skimp on Training

While 63 percent of retailers plan to offer at least 10 percent of their seasonal workforce full-time positions, the majority of seasonal hires are temporary. But don't take this as an excuse to diminish investment in their learning and development.

For national members-only wholesale club BJ's, training is key to providing a seamless customer experience through the busy holiday months. The company hires thousands of seasonal employees, says Shelley Constantino, VP of Field Human Resources, and provides them with the same multi-day orientation as year-round employees.

In addition, Constantino warns against a one-and-done training for seasonal employees: "We encourage our Club leadership to provide feedback on a regular basis to make sure that our new team members feel welcome, understand their roles and responsibilities and have the opportunity for growth and career development."

3. Find in the Right Technology

If onboarding and training holiday employees during an already hectic season seems daunting, consider investing in technology to automate the process. The right digital tools can save time and money, while providing temporary employees with the same experience as full-time workers.

Franz Villa, director of training and development at sports gear retailer Big 5 Sporting Goods, shared how switching from in-person to online learning transformed his seasonal training process. Now, holiday hires can take a series of interactive elearning courses on their own time. "Our store managers are able to get new seasonal employees up to speed faster," he says. "We've reduced overall training time, administrative costs, and travel expenses and have developed an efficient training program that can onboard and prep a new employee in less than seven days."

Other retailers are now using technology to enable remote work, expanding their talent pools and offering more flexibility to seasonal candidates. This year, JCPenney, Williams-Sonoma, and Amazon added work-from-home positions to their holiday jobs.

As you engage with seasonal workers, whether they're on the sales floor, behind the scenes, or remote, the bottom line is to show them they are valued. As Domian put Bon-Ton's philosophy, "Even if you're not going to be here for more than six to 10 weeks, you're still part of our team."

Published on: Nov 14, 2017