Tips for Seasonal Warehouse Staffing

Aug 17, 2011 9:32 PM  By

Is the back end of your business ready to take on fulfilling holiday orders? You not only need to make sure you have enough workers on hand to handle seasonal demand, you need to hire the right people and train them well.

The holiday crunch is no time to be short staffed or to have workers making mistakes that could harm your reputation. These are a few tips for hiring and managing seasonal operations employees.

1) Aim to bring back the best. Hopefully you’ve been keeping in contact with your best holiday workers from previous seasons (and if not, you should do this next year).

“A postcard or phone call goes a long way in making them feel wanted and gauging their interest in returning,” says Tim Little, vice president of operations for Miles Kimball Co.

The gifts and housewares mailer makes it clear to the seasonal candidates that if they perform well during the busy season, they could be eligible for year-round employment after the busy season ends, Little says.

When multititle mailer Potpourri Group hires seasonal workers, it lets them know that staff reduction is based on productivity, attendance and teamwork—not seniority says Katherine Smith, director of warehouse operations. That means there is a possibility to become a regular staffer at the end of the season, “and this incents them to be productive.”

Smith uses a call back list to let people know if staff is needed, that they’ll be the first ones called before any new hires. “This works well and the benefit to us is they are already trained,” she say. “It’s been very successful for us reducing recruiting and training costs and helpful in ramping up staffing for the season.”

2) Make friends with the employment agencies. Develop a strong relationship with a staffing agency throughout the year, says Shawn Burwell, manager of operations and fulfillment for Jockey International.

Robin Bavin, chief operating officer for Stony Creek Brands, agrees. “It’s important to build a strong partnership with your temporary agency,” she says. “You need to be the employer that they enjoy working with and satisfying first.”

Besides testing the staffer’s quality of work, be sure to test the ability of the agency management. “You should be able bring in extra resources within hours if needed,” Burwell says.

And give the agencies plenty of notice about when you’ll need workers and how many. Richard Petisce, vice president of distribution for jewelry and gifts merchant Ross Simons, advises identifying seasonal throughput needs at least two months in advance. “Then notify temporary labor providers early to reserve for the upcoming work load.”

3) Involve your managers and team leaders in the hiring process. Do not make this simply an HR task to go and find the requisite number of bodies to fill the positions, warns Miles Kimball’s Little.

“Years ago we use to simply put the requisition out there and HR would make the hire based on an application, a resume and one interview,” Little says. “Now we partner with HR and have an operational leader perform a second interview and a walk through with the candidate to expose them to the work environment so they clearly see what the expectations are for the position.”

4) Give workers a trial run. Be sure to have test runs several times before peak season, Petisce says.

You can even bring seasonal help in during a catalog drop during the summer months, Burwell says. “During test runs, identify those staffers that are strong performers and request them on future spikes and holiday.”

5) Keep pay rate above minimum wage. This is a huge motivator and also helps weed out employees that don’t want to work, says Bavin. “I increased the pay rate due to a tough year last holiday with finding good quality people.”

What do merchants pay seasonal staffers? The average pay for a seasonal staffer among companies interviewed ranges from $8.35 to $12.

At Miles Kimball, “it’s not different whether they are seasonal or regular employees,” Smith says, but pay varies by department, experience and responsibility. “We also have an incentive program in some areas, so this affects the pay rate.”

6) Plan to replace 10%-15% of staff provided. Stony Creek Brands, which starts its search for seasonal staff in August, takes about four weeks to screen applicants, Bavin says. The merchant aims to find a larger group than needed, “as we normally lose about 15%-20% during the month of September training due to no-shows or not being able to keep up.”

7) Use an on-boarding program. This helps weed out staff who will not make the cut within the first day to reduce wasting labor and training. Stony Creek Brands is using a new on-boarding program, which starts at the temporary agency going through some basic requirements and expectations. “We review all safety and building policies, give them a brief understanding of the company products and order flow,” Bavin says.

The second step is to pair up an employee with a permanent employee for hands-on training. “We can normally tell if they will make the cut by end of day,” Bavin says. But if you empower permanent staff to lead the temporary employees, both will usually exceed expectations, she notes.

8) Be flexible. Scale hours up and down to accommodate employees’ scheduling needs, says Scott Johnson, vice president of operations at apparel and bedding merchant Garnet Hill. But don’t let seasonal staffing eat into profits by getting locked into providing hours if the work isn’t there, he says. “Training must be simple and quick.”

9) Don’t skimp on training. Seasonal training starts in mid-September at Stony Creek Brands, Bavin says: Workers are required to have at least four shifts of listening, entering orders, and finally talking to customers.

This process lasts about a month, which is when the merchant needs the additional staff. “We keep the staff through the end of December but retain the best if they can continue to work on an on-call basis throughout the year.”

Set three or four levels of production and be careful to allocate tasks and set reasonable expectations, says Petisce of Ross Simons.

Although it’s time consuming during a critical time, Little says, “we find that the added effort upfront leads to finding the right candidates with the right fit for the position.”

10) Plan ahead—as much as you can. Bring the business and the fulfillment operations teams together for a couple hours in September to review goals, key dates and to identify any potential challenges. The more information the distribution center knows going into the holiday season, the easier it is to focus on shipping and managing a larger DC team, Burwell notes.