Staffing Issues Seasonal help scare?

Considering that unemployment hit a record nationwide low (4.3%) this past April, some catalogers are already having trouble hiring operations personnel in the off-season. And the situation is only going to get worse as catalog mailers begin scrambling to hire additional staff for the holiday season.

“I think this year we’ll have more problems” hiring seasonal help, says Liz Plotnick, chief operating officer for the $7 million Delaware, OH-based Gooseberry Patch catalog, which sells country gifts and home accessories. “Seventy to eighty percent of our operations staff are working mothers, so we’ve made their schedules less rigid to suit their family life.”

In 1997, Gooseberry Patch had 24 full and part-time employees in its phone center and 36 workers in the warehouse. “From July to December this year, we will need at least 30% more staff,” Plotnik says. “We may have to place advertisements further away and employ more school and adult fundraising groups than we did last year, if staffing becomes a problem. For example, the local high school cross-country team may need to raise money for a track meet, so they do prep work or prepacking work, allowing our staff to do more detailed tasks.” And through its “Bring a Friend” program, Gooseberry Patch offers a cash bonus of $25-$50 to employees who introduce friends who work throughout the holiday season.

But some catalogers haven’t yet felt a seasonal pinch. So far, Sierra Trading Post is having no problem hiring operational staff for the peak season, from August to December. “We need about 20 extra people this year, down from 50 last year,” because this year’s sales are up only 10%, while last year’s had increased more than 20%, says Keith Richardson, owner and president of the Cheyenne, WY-based outdoor clothing and equipment catalog.

Faith Mountain, the Sperryville, VA, apparel and gifts cataloger, isn’t having problems finding operations staff either, says Judy Cornwell, human resources and training manager. “We will begin hiring in July, having advertised heavily and recruited at high schools.” She does admit, however, that prospective workers now have other job offers to consider simultaneously.

Retaining the ranks Low unemployment rates have made it even more important to retain workers. General merchandise cataloger Fingerhut, for one, offers workers referral and good attendance bonuses, productivity gain sharing, store discounts, and prize drawings to encourage the staff to stay.

Indeed, most catalogers are working harder to find and keep staff, says Curt Barry, a Richmond, VA-based catalog fulfillment consultant. “The economy is at capacity, and it’s down to competing against fast-food employees who are just above the minimum wage; before, catalogers could hire from a higher skills pool,” he says.

Worse yet, catalogers may be paying more for less-skilled workers, Barry says. “If you were to look at 50 catalogers, you’d find that the average hourly rate for fulfillment jobs over the past few years has probably increased from under $7.00 to closer to $8.00,” he says. Seasonal and flexible workers are being paid more and want the same benefits traditionally given to full-timers, he says.

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