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Home Improvement Retailers Staff Up for Their Holiday Season

April 14, 2011

Frenzied retailers hiring tens of thousands of Santa’s helpers before the Christmas holiday shopping crush hits is not unlike the approach of the two top home improvement stores when winter’s chill begins to thaw.

As the snow melts and days get longer, the home improvement bug hits homeowners every spring, which prompts the Home Depot and Lowe’s to go on a seasonal hiring binge of their own to assist customers seeking the goods to mend broken fences and revive dormant lawns and gardens.

“Spring is really our Christmas season, which is typical of what you’ll hear from any home improvement retailer,” said Eric Schelling, director of talent acquisition for Atlanta-based Home Depot Inc. “Our planning process for our spring hire initiative usually starts in the fall of the previous year.”

Home Depot began hiring more than 60,000 part-time seasonal employees nationwide in March to handle the home improvement industry’s busiest shopping season of the year, says Sheryll Campbell, a public relations specialist for the chain. Mooresville, North Carolina-based Lowe’s Companies Inc. plans to hire 50,000 seasonal employees this spring, says spokeswoman Karen Cobb.

Schelling and Cobb say hiring depends on weather conditions, so advertising for positions and recruitment generally begins in Southern states, with Florida being among the first to complete seasonal hiring. Both chains say compensation for seasonal employees is competitive and varies depending on the employee’s role and where they’re hired.

“Temporary workforces in retail are an absolute bear but they are unavoidable,” according to Greg Belkin, retail research analyst for Boston-based Aberdeen Group. “Success depends on these peak selling points that can make or break a retailer’s entire year. As a result, there is a lot of pressure to hire enough people and to get it right. There is very little wiggle room.”

Belkin found that retailers’ chief concern about seasonal hiring is the need for continuity and quality customer service.

“Retailers have to present the most unified vision to the customer as they walk in the door,” he says. “They should not know the difference in quality between an employee that has been there for several years and a worker who has just been hired.”

The home improvement retailers say they’ve enhanced customer service by streamlining training practices to produce well-trained employees in a significantly shorter period of time.

Home Depot in 2010 introduced a training program titled Customer FIRST—short for “find,” “inquire,” “respect,” “solve” and “thank”—which teaches the fundamentals of providing quality customer service. Campbell says the company boils down the key components of the program for seasonal workers, who receive a general orientation as well as training on basic skills for their assignment and basic product knowledge.

Lowe’s would not discuss training procedures for its seasonal staff.

Belkin said Home Depot’s practice to train seasonal associates on more generalized knowledge of the store’s practices and operations is made simpler and faster by an increased use of online learning tools.

By putting its training online, he said, seasonal workers can access materials both on- and off-site. That allows employees to get on the store’s floor faster. Belkin added that e-learning has helped some retailers slice the time it takes to train a seasonal employee from 20 to 30 hours down to three to six hours.

In addition, Belkin said, many large retailers are implementing placement tests that help the company quickly assess an employee’s skills for successful placement in the store.

“In retail, the speed with which you have to bring people onboard has to be very fast because the turnover is so great,” Belkin says. “The lifespan of even your average consumer-facing employee is low,” making the challenge of creating a cohesive workforce with strong customer service skills all the more difficult.

“There is a lot of pressure for them to get it right and there is very little wiggle room,” Belkin says. “Employees who are in the wrong position are immediately recognizable to the consumer who nowadays just doesn’t have to put up with it.”

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