April 21, 2023
Frontline work comes in waves. Well, more like giant spikes.
Customer-facing jobs are challenging, and when you throw in surges throughout the year, it becomes increasingly complex to hire, staff, and schedule well.
The term was coined by economist Arthur Okun in the 1960s when he noticed that companies facing a downturn were still holding on to employees instead of initiating layoffs.
Labor hoarding isn’t a term I was familiar with, although I practiced it throughout my two-decade-long retail career. I led sizable teams. At our peak, we employed about sixty employees in our 10,000-square-foot building. Our two peak seasons were late summer and holiday. We’d spend up to six weeks churning through group interviews and onboarding five people per week – a mighty effort for a small leadership team.
Our typical goal was onboarding twenty temporary hires per season.
As each peak season came to a close, we’d let some seasonal hires go. They knew the work was short-term, so it wasn’t a shock. We’d also extend an offer to a few people who really stood out during the season. Every season my leadership team would ask me, “How many associates can we keep on staff?”
My answer was always the same, “If they’re awesome, keep them. Keep. Great. People. Period.”
“I leaned heavily on labor hoarding.”
We had the luxury of working with teenagers. I don’t mean that sarcastically. Most of the teenagers I worked with worked for pocket money. They lived in an affluent area and were perfectly satisfied working eight hours a week once they returned to class. They were busy with their social lives and soccer games. Their lifestyle worked in my favor because they weren’t clamoring for shifts.
These teens worked at my store because it was fun, and their friends worked there. They got a discount on clothes and were happy to bank a skinny paycheck every two weeks. Because of this unique scenario, I leaned heavily on labor hoarding.
If you’re not careful, you can end up with too many people and insufficient hours, hurting employees who need consistent wages. However, the advantages far exceeded the disadvantages in my store.
Teens are notoriously not great at planning. They’re still figuring out how to balance homework with their work schedule. Not only that, but they’re also social opportunists. They want to be out whenever possible. If something comes up at the last minute, they want in.
I kept extra people on staff for all of these reasons.
I also regularly navigated the following scenarios:
Seventeen and Eighteen-year-olds need their wisdom teeth removed, and they need to go to visit colleges. It’s insane how much they need to do before they graduate high school. You forget if you don’t see it regularly.
Before I started labor hoarding, all these demands would throw me, and I’d be scrambling to find floor coverage. With extra staff, I could advise my team to find another associate to cover for them when surprises arose. I could also schedule up quickly if a local school had an extended weekend we weren’t expecting, and traffic ramped up.
It saved everyone from being stretched too thin and burning out.
Labor hoarding can get you into trouble if you have a more mature staff counting on full-time hours and a fatter paycheck. If someone is trying to feed a family, labor hoarding can disadvantage them. Employers need to assess their situation carefully and proceed with what is more beneficial to their staff.
I mainly employed high school students who worked primarily for life experience and not so much for money. They weren’t upset when they received their schedule and only had two shifts. The few hard-working, reliable people who needed a fatter paycheck were scheduled more frequently and readily picked up shifts others gave away.
Keeping people on staff was also a better alternative to wading through all the paperwork required to separate someone and hire them again in three months. I kept them on and gave them minimal hours, which they were fine with because they were focused on school. Then, when our next season approached, all I had to do was allocate more hours their way. Their school schedule slowed down, and they picked up more work. Win/win.
The operational and legal hoops you must jump through to hire someone, separate them, and then hire them again are draining. When you keep them on staff, you save time. One or two shifts a week also keeps them caught up with new company initiatives. Otherwise, when you rehire someone, you have to give them a thirty-minute TED talk about what’s changed since they’ve been gone. When they work eight hours a week, you don’t.
Labor hoarding will not work for every retail team, but the industry has been hit hard in the last few years. The American labor force is in a much different place than it was three years ago.
“We have nearly three million fewer Americans participating in the labor force today compared to February of 2020.” – U.S Chamber of Commerce
Everyone in charge of employing people must get creative, especially in frontline work. When you find great people, figure out a way to keep them. Labor hoarding is one option. It was a viable option for me and worked well.
Depending on who you employ, it can work in everyone’s favor. When it’s done well, and you see a giant spike in business, flexing up to meet the demand will be as smooth as vanilla frosting.
Zipline is how best-in-class retailers bring brand strategies to life in stores. A unified platform for operational excellence, Zipline brings together frontline communications, task management, resources, insights, and more—so everyone feels connected to the brand and inspired by their work. Today, nearly 80 brands like Rite Aid and Sephora depend on Zipline to align and empower their store teams worldwide. Reach out to learn how Zipline can help you outsmart your competition today.
Kit Campoy is a former retail leader turned freelance writer based in Southern California. She covers Retail, Leadership, Web3, and more. Join the waitlist for her upcoming book, Leadership Field Guide, and connect with Kit on LinkedIn.
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