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Smash + Tess was one of many retailers competing for talent ahead of the holiday rush – a period during which retailers make the bulk of their sales, and which hits a fever pitch this week.Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

When Bree Stanlake’s new bosses told her in mid-October that they wanted to open a pop-up store the following month, she had an immediate reaction.

“I thought, ‘You guys are nuts,’ ” recalled Ms. Stanlake, the head of growth and retail for Smash + Tess, an e-commerce seller of rompers and loungewear. “One of my hugest worries was staffing … knowing that we are in this labour crunch and it’s such a short timeline.”

To compete, the Vancouver-based company decided to offer higher wages than other retailers typically pay. “It allowed people to see it as a viable job that supports the cost of living,” Ms. Stanlake said.

Smash + Tess was just one of many retailers competing for talent ahead of the holiday rush – a period during which retailers make the bulk of their sales, and which hits a fever pitch this week. September through December is always a high-demand period for seasonal hiring in the industry, but after months of pandemic-related uncertainty – including layoffs when stores were forced to shut down – the labour crunch was especially pronounced this year.

“We’ve seen thousands of people walk away from retail in the past two years,” Ms. Stanlake said.

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Retail had the third-largest number of job vacancies among Canadian business sectors in September, the most recent month for which data is available, according to Statistics Canada. At that time, the sector had a job vacancy rate of 5.8 per cent, or a total of 121,715 vacancies. The only two industry categories that had more overall demand for workers were “health care and social assistance” and “accommodation and food services.”

“I talked to retailers who said, ‘We’ve got the key holder [a senior store staffer], who we probably kept through COVID. And maybe he or she was doing e-commerce delivery from the store. And then we just hired people back,’” said Michael LeBlanc, senior retail adviser for the Retail Council of Canada. “So we’re in the middle of just restaffing to begin with, let alone growing the staff to meet the increased demand.’”

As Hudson’s Bay Co. raced to staff up for the seasonal rush – when its employee count rises roughly 40 per cent – one of the ways it increased its pool of candidates was to lower its minimum age requirement, from 18 years to the minimum age of employment in each province. That meant advertising more actively on social media, where younger recruits spend their time.

And that’s why Canada’s oldest retailer recently turned to TikTok. In its first-ever recruiting video on the platform in September, the 351-year-old company touted flexible hours and employee discounts.

“Everyone has turned over every stone to try to find talent,” said Toni Spence, Hudson’s Bay’s chief human-resources officer.

Like other retailers, the company conducted on-the-spot interviews with applicants at its stores – and offered some of them jobs on the spot. It also actively encouraged friends-and-family referrals from existing staff, and advertised the opportunity for college and university students to work part-time where they go to school, and to transfer to stores closer to home during the holidays.

“We’re pretty pleased with what we’ve been able to accomplish. We are not where we want to be, but … we were able to fill the majority of our positions,” Ms. Spence said.

Electronics retailer The Source also revamped its hiring practices, doing interviews online and cutting down its response time to candidates to as little as 24 hours.

The holiday hiring blitz goes beyond bricks-and-mortar stores: to compete for employees at its distribution centre in Montreal, e-commerce retailer Altitude Sports boosted wages by $2 an hour in September, followed by an additional $1 during its peak period from Nov. 22 to Dec. 30. The company also encouraged head-office staff to take shifts picking and packing orders. (Co-CEOs Maxime Dubois and Alexandre Guimond joined in.)

Because of the labour crunch, Altitude Sports was unable to fill as many full-time positions as usual: 55 per cent of its seasonal contract workers were part time, compared with about 25 per cent in a typical year. Those part-time shifts came with a slight increase in absenteeism.

“If I look at Black Friday, Cyber Monday, I would say absolutely we struggled,” said Sharlinee Maharaj, vice-president of people and culture at Altitude Sports. That was coupled with supply-chain hurdles, she added. “We’re really proud of the fact that we were able to, despite the challenges, get our products to our customers.”

Now, in the final days of holiday shopping, with some Canadian jurisdictions reimposing capacity limits on stores, the need for staff likely will not diminish, Mr. LeBlanc said.

“Now you’ve got to have people at the front door, monitoring how many people come to the store, managing the line. Now your pick-and-pack is going to explode, and curbside [pickup] is very labour-intensive,” he said. “My sense would be, the labour requirements go up, not down, when the store restrictions happen.”

Not all retailers took part in the seasonal hiring rush, however. At its three locations in Vancouver, Pulpfiction Books hires only full-time staff and has enough employees to cover the holiday customer surge, said owner Chris Brayshaw. “I have always thought having a bit of surplus labour makes for happier clients and less stressed-out staff,” he added.

Mr. Brayshaw questions the premise of a labour shortage, and says he believes the onus is on retailers to offer jobs people want.

“I keep seeing businesses saying it’s so tough to find labour,” he said. “My feeling has always been, if you are having real difficulties finding labour, you’re not paying people enough.”

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