Survey: Majority of Retailers in Canada Plan to Hire this Year Amid COVID Challenges

Retail Insider, in partnership with Toronto-based Best Retail Careers International Inc., recently conducted a survey of retailers and the findings were surprising. A poll allowed retailers to anonymously answer a series of questions about plans for staffing between now and into the fall and then into the December holiday shopping season.

The study indicated that the vast majority of retailers surveyed are looking to hire into the fall and winter of this year. “Headlines abound touting that retailers in demise are shedding large numbers of employees. The headlines are daily. Be prepared to reset that vision,” said Suzanne Sears, founder and CEO of Best Retail Careers International Inc. in an interview with Retail Insider on the study’s findings.

“The study found that 89% of retailers taking the survey reported that they do intend to hire. The hiring process will be spread out over the balance of 2020, with 29% of respondents saying that they’re hiring immediately, 27% plan to hire within the next three months, and the remainder of hires planned will be for seasonal holiday selling.”

Those results indicate some confidence in the retail industry at a time when some media has often focused on the negative. Some retailers are reporting stronger than anticipated sales. Some luxury brands in particular are seeing higher sales now when compared to this time last year, prompting Suzanne Sears to launch a new luxury retail industry recruiting platform which will include a job board on the Retail Insider website. During a recent visit to Toronto’s Bloor-Yorkville area, Ms. Sears said that some luxury brands had told her that sales in some instances had been record-breaking recently, with one recent addition to the neighbourhood saying that sales are now triple what they were last year when the brand opened its concession within Holt Renfrew on Bloor Street.

In terms of government subsidies leading to increased hiring now and into the fall, Ms. Sears said, “These staffing intentions seem quite firm. One would expect that the 75% wage subsidy program from CEWS is the factor underlying this confidence. Retailers know they will have the funds to pay staff.”

Ms. Sears noted that there is some uncertainty in the industry, however. “We can speculate that the respondents want to see real sales continue but also have in mind a potential second wave of COVID-19 that might shut them down again. They do not want to be in a high head count position if this happens again,” she said.

“So who are these people retailers intend to hire? Surprisingly, only 60% intend to recall their furloughed staff to fill the anticipated hiring sprees. Yet at the same time 70% of retailers anticipate some of their staff will not be willing to return to work. What can we interpret from this seeming conflict of retailers expecting staff to not return when called yet retailers only intend to extend offers to 60% of who they furloughed?”

Ms. Sears explained how the answer might be that many retailers surveyed must have ‘packaged out’ some of their more senior staff at higher salaries while at the same time using this transition period to evaluate the best performers. This has led to a trimming of head counts to reflect bringing back just their most valued staff, she said.

“At the same time then we must look at what categories of staff retailers intend to hire. In the study, 66% of respondents said that they were looking to hire only part time staff. About 35% said that they would hire full time staff. This is a fairly startling statistic. There are a few potential problems with this strategy.”

“First off, the CEWS funding was meant to keep staff employed at the levels they were before. Retail represents roughly 25% of the entire economy and many are not intending to use these funds this way. Rather, they intend to rehire on thinner hours, and this may conflict with the goals of the Federal Government,” Ms. Sears said.

She went on to explain some other concerns regarding government funds used to rehire staff amid store closures due to COVID-19. “The goal for CEWS was also to retain the headcount prior to COVID-19. Clearly it seems that no retailers actually intend to do that but are in fact shrinking head count by an estimated 10%. Now while not all retailers are using the federal funding, the averages suggest that many are.”

“Thus we can see the Federal government and retailers butting heads this Fall: intent versus actual use of CEWS funds.”

“Now the second matter is the actual availability of part time staff. Are they willing to trade full time jobs with benefits for insecure, seasonal part time work? Here we run into the CERB funding issue. While many think that CERB is preventing staff from taking on work, a little digging reveals that in most cases, the offers the employers have made to them are insufficient to entice them back. They are facing massive childcare decisions and problems with feeling safe.”

“If indeed people are in a position where CERB is over, it is false to believe they will thus be pushed by lack of options into accepting underemployment as their new reality. Statistics Canada already shows over half a million people have simply stopped looking for work at this time but do want to go to work at some point.”

Ms. Sears explained that retailers relying upon hiring 66% all part time workers may find themselves caught off guard for holiday sales as retail staff begin to reject the offers even without CERB funds.

“Additionally, retailers in the survey indicated a pushback on minimum wage offers and are quite concerned they will not be able to afford the demands of hiring new staff.”

Ms. Sears provided a caution to retailers noting that there may be a reluctance amongst some employees to take public transit in order to get to their jobs. “This was a hiring problem before COVID-19 but seems to be gaining more prominence in staffing obstacles now due to safety fears.”

“In the survey, our last question centred on hiring staff for luxury retailers. While luxury represents a small and unique employment sector that was difficult to staff, 55% of retailers now say it is very hard to recruit luxury staff. Luxury is a small segment of Canadian retail; no more than 15% in total sales, and results in the study appear to show that more than half of them are struggling to find the calibre of staff they need.”

Luxury retailers are different in their staffing needs according to Ms. Sears, seeking out the best talent possible who can provide high-quality service to a discerning customer. “Luxury retailers have more unique hiring criteria to meet than mainstream retail does. These brands are highly sensitive as to who they wish to represent their brands,” she said. “There are often demands to travel or relocate attached to these roles and for in-home selling visits. Overall the talent pool is small for luxury retailers and the filters to hire are set very, very high.”

“The overall conclusion of the survey is that retailers are eager to hire and intend to hire even if the hiring does not look like any hiring initiative that they have ever executed before. These are unprecedented times and retailers may need some help on boarding staff required to maintain operations.”

In early August, Best Retail Careers International Inc. will be launching a luxury staffing platform in partnership with Retail Insider, including a high-end job board that will expand across Canada. The initial focus will be on Toronto’s Bloor-Yorkville area and the program will subsequently expand across the country. A virtual employment fair will also be held.

For more information on the new job board and career fair, email Craig Patterson at: craig@retail-insider.com

Article Author

Craig Patterson
Craig Patterson
Now located in Toronto, Craig is a retail analyst and consultant at the Retail Council of Canada. He's also the Director of Applied Research at the University of Alberta School of Retailing in Edmonton. He has studied the Canadian retail landscape for the past 25 years and he holds Bachelor of Commerce and Bachelor of Laws Degrees. He is also President & CEO of Vancouver-based Retail Insider Media Ltd.

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