Canadian Retailers Lack Staff at Critical Time: Expert

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By Suzanne Sears

Retailers have been in a quandary for several months, not knowing if they should hire during the COVID-19 pandemic. The question many are asking is: what if everything shuts down again?

According to the RBC Consumer Spending Report published on October 5th, 2020 there seems to be far less to worry about than the headlines might indicate.

Overall, there has been next to no signs that consumers are worried about the second wave of COVID-19. FACT: Consumer spending was up at least 5% by mid-September. This figure is identical to how consumers were spending in January 2020. While spending certainly tanked in April of this year, that trend was gone by the end of June with no signs of abating so far.


Surprisingly, of all the retail categories to return to former levels, clothing sales showed the strongest revival. Are we amazed? Yes clothing, jewellery, and gift sales are actually up 1.5% over last years results.

Yet at the same time, most retailers are reporting they have only returned to 40% of their previous staffing levels.

The question becomes: How can sales be up and staffing levels are drastically down? Were retailers really overstaffed by 60% last year? Or is something else going on?

Most retailers only brought back their highest performers from layoff. The old 20/80 rule might be rewritten as the 40/60 rule. Meaning, that a small percentage of your staff generate the most volume. The rest of the staff is “dragged along” because no one can be bothered to retrain or replace them.

Did retailers suddenly get that much more efficient? Did training levels increase this drastically during lockdown? Perhaps.

If this theory is true, that you only need the best staff and not the rest, what steps do retailers need to take to improve the entire talent pool?

An important question to ask: If sales continue to rise, do you really have enough staff to generate the maximum sales? (The principal being it takes 6 staff on the sales floor to generate $1 million in clothing sales).

Retailers, are you working your best players to death, loading them with so much work that they will likely leave you? Are you afraid to replace your furloughed weaker staff with higher talent for fear of looking like mean guys?

There are two sides to the story.

From the retail talent pool, they will tell you they feel like they are working in sweat shops, they are so understaffed. They are burning out quickly and don’t feel the holiday selling season will be maximized at all. Many are planning their exit from retail altogether. Working in retail is no longer “fun”. The drudgery of crowd control, infection control, high strung customers, and lack of inventory is wearing even seasoned retailers.

From the executive suite, which is completely baffled as to why sales are up at all, massive skepticism leads it to believe the bottom will fall out any day and so it’s best to keep staffing levels low. After all, isn’t online shopping the way retail is headed? Not exactly.

Nearly to the minute all physical stores reopened following COVID-19 shutdowns, online sales began to decline and physical brick and mortar stores began to rebound. The major problem is not the lack of shoppers so much when compared to the lack of seasonal inventory. Orders got cancelled. Nearly every store at September 1 had only 25% of their prime selling space stocked with current goods.

The daily headlines of retail chains filing for protection has most retailers terrified to do much “growth” planning.

However, if they followed their own sales reports and ignored the external drama, their decisions would be very different. They would be staffing up for a likely strong holiday shopping season. The evidence is clear. Consumers want to shop.


This is the time retailers should be culling their weakest performers, retraining the salvageable, and actively seeking to hire new top performers.

Remember, retail was short 10% of optimum staffing levels before COVID-19 hit. Now it is worse as staff are moving away from retail careers.

Either retailers believe the evidence from their own data and accounting, which indicates sales are consistent and growing, or they follow disaster headlines and plan to shrink. Few-to-no retailers have ever shrunk their way to success.

Hire, and hire fast. Grab this spending surge while you can.

My firm, Best Retail Careers International, launched a recruit-by-membership program to help the industry retain the best talent. For luxury retailers, we also launched Luxury Careers Canada which is working with the top brands and retailers, and features a job board with available positions. We have access to over 50,000 potential candidates directly and even more through word-of-mouth.

Suzanne Sears is the President of Best Retail Careers International and Luxury Careers Canada.

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