CONVERTING CUSTOMERS TO STAFFERS

Byline: Andree Conrad

NEW YORK — Multichannel retailers are finding new functions to piggyback onto their Web sites — specifically, an invitation to customers to become employees.
Bolstered by job-search engines, corporate Web sites are pulling in better-qualified candidates less expensively, and filling open positions faster than by traditional means such as search firms and the Sunday newspapers.
Even more intriguing, some major retailers are ramping up for the holiday crunch by seeking hourly workers, including sales associates, online. This is a group that previously was not thought to have access to the Internet.
The rationale for pursuing online recruitment may have started with cost-cutting, but its real worth turns out to be about finding new ways to attract workers in a challenging economy. Turnover can’t be ignored, which in specialty retailing, for instance, is a staggering 97 percent, according to management consulting firm Nextera Enterprises here.
Findings also showed that employee-turnover replacement costs have reduced earnings and stock prices by an average of 38 percent in specialty retail, as well as three other high-turnover industries that compete for the same labor pool, such as call-center services and fast-food restaurants.
The investment community isn’t forgiving turnover as a cost of doing business anymore. The premise that an online customer will make a better employee makes sense — but in this free-agent labor market, the human resources departments are just keeping their fingers crossed.
Bill Donahue, vice president of recruitment at Sears, Roebuck & Co., Hoffman Estates, Ill., said online recruiting works. He’s been doing it for five or six years, first for information-technology candidates and now for just about every job within the $41 billion organization.
Sears is filling positions nationwide at its 860 stores and other facilities from the Sears Web site and, he said, “It isn’t just techies anymore. Out of the top 10 or 12 types of Web search, job and employment searches rank number one, and that applies to all ages now.”
Donahue said Sears took its recruitment online to find the right age group for the bulk of jobs it has to offer. U.S. employment projections are shrinking rapidly for the pool of people under the age of 25, from which most retail workers are drawn, and Donahue said, “We realized we were going to have to look at different areas to get help, particularly with 14 percent growth projected for retail by 2008.”
Sears supplements the leads generated by its own site with a handful of online job recruiters such as Monster.com and Hotjobs.com, but its own site produces the greatest volume of prospects. Sears outsources processing of those leads to iSearch.com, Los Angeles. The company scans faxed resumes, grades them against posted job requirements and then forwards them to Donahue for consideration.
“We could probably build this [functionality] ourselves,” said Donahue, “but with 25,000 to 30,000 resumes coming in, it’s better to have somebody handle it for you. And you have to move fast. If you have a hot candidate and you don’t respond in 24 hours, you’ll lose them.”
A different tack is taken by Federated Department Stores, Cincinnati. The company has developed a recruitment site, http://www.retailology.com, aimed at attracting college students to a career in retail.
Sherry Hollock, Federated’s operating vice president for organization development, said the site’s enhancements contains new features stemming from input from 270,000 visitors in the past year.
The site walks visitors through various career paths within the company and features streaming video of Federated employees describing their jobs realistically and explaining why working at Federated is a worthwhile career. All the material is designed to attract career-oriented candidates who may have an aptitude for the jobs described.
Deliberately, the site makes no mention of store-level sales positions and instead highlights the greater achievements of a career in retail. “Our premise was that we wanted to educate the student and highlight the exciting nature of the careers, to give them more of a sense of what retail is all about, not perpetuate their idea of retail as ‘the mall experience,”‘ said Susan Burns, Federated’s director of college relations.
The site netted 48 new hires this spring — very promising for the low-turnover corporate culture Federated is trying to foster.
Another company that is trying to use its Web site to find long-term employees is Mervyn’s California, the Target division based in Hayward, Calif. Mike Woginrich, manager of campus relations, said that for the past two years, the company has been posting all positions on its own Web site. The proportion of college students is high among the 50 to 100 applications Woginrich receives for each position in merchandise planning, the area he handles.
“The number of responses is much higher this year than last, though I wish it were even higher,” Woginrich said. “The glam jobs — IT and marketing — are very hot right now. But we don’t have enough history yet to track whether online leads have better retention than any others.”
Stein Mart in Jacksonville, Fla., represents the case of the mainstream retail Web site containing a recruitment feature: It is after computer literacy rather than college degrees. “Even on the floor, you are going to be working with a computer,” said Hunt Hawkins, vice president of human resources. “We look for candidates from all disciplines — especially ones specializing in the IT networks that we use to communicate from the stores.”
Stein Mart employs Monster.com to recruit for everything but sales associate positions, listed along with all open jobs on the Stein Mart Web site, which attract a fair number of inquiries.
But it’s hardly enough for the holiday staffing needs of Stein Mart’s 211 stores. Meanwhile, Sears needs to fill 47,000 nonexempt, nonmanagerial, hourly positions for the holidays, and J.C. Penney, Plano, Tex., needs a similar number of holiday workers. Both companies have signed with gotajob.com in Denver, which attracts a great concentration of “applicant candidates” rather than “resume candidates.”

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