Image: Target store
Lm Otero  /  AP
A sign saying Hiring Now greets a shopper as she enters a retail store in Dallas, Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2006. Retail stores have realized that a Help Wanted sign in the window isn't enough to attract holiday help in a time of low unemployment.
updated 12/3/2006 5:12:10 PM ET 2006-12-03T22:12:10

Carlos Penate went into a RadioShack store looking for a memory card for his cell phone. He left with a new job.

When an assistant manager found out that Penate, 18, was looking for some extra holiday cash, it was suggested he go from shopper to sales associate. Two weeks later, Penate was hired.

Retail stores have realized that a Help Wanted sign in the window isn’t enough to attract holiday help in a time of low unemployment. It’s a lesson that’s helping them overcome an expected shortfall of seasonal employees.

One of the best ways to find temporary help, retailers say: Cherry pick your best customers. Best Buy, RadioShack and Target are among the companies that recruit from the checkout line.

It’s one way retailers make sure they have enough workers around to handle the crush of Christmas shoppers.

Other strategies include loading up on holiday employees early in the season, advertising for openings in unique ways or providing incentives to new hires or for referrals. These tactics are all necessary at a time when employers are having trouble finding people willing to work.

Joel Wagher, a labor-market analyst in Houston, said retailers for years have posted window signs offering holiday-season jobs, but he couldn’t recall stores putting fliers in customers’ shopping bags. And to do it a month before Christmas shows how tight the labor market it, he said.

“Usually they’ve hired their holiday help by the end of October,” Wagher said. “If they don’t have them in place by the first of December, they’re probably really hurting.”

The U.S. unemployment rate is at a five-year low of 4.4 percent, making store staffing a special challenge this year, according to several labor and retail experts.

Not everyone ready for retail
New claims for unemployment benefits have increased recently, but analysts say many of those laid-off workers aren’t interested in temporary seasonal jobs that don’t pay very well. Texas Workforce Commission analyst Robert Crawley said some of the people making claims might not be qualified for retail jobs.

“You’re not going to take a laid-off welder and expect him to work a cash register during the holidays,” he said.

Unusual operating hours, such as midnight sales or early opening hours, have also turned off prospective seasonal employees, or at least allowed them to be picky about where to work, said John Challenger, who heads Challenger, Gray and Christmas, a Chicago outsourcing company.

The market is forcing retailers to “go out and beat the bushes,” said Rick Beal, a San Francisco-based human resources consultant for Watson Wyatt Worldwide. One method: Cull prospective employees from a store’s most loyal customers.

“We find that so many people who shop with us are enthusiastic and passionate about RadioShack, and they like to be in our stores,” said Erin Quillian, a regional human resources manager for RadioShack Corp. “We encourage employees to talk to customers and ask if anyone might be interested in seasonal positions.”

Help wanted ads on receipts
In Texas, where unemployment is at 4.8 percent, its lowest since April 2001, the recruiting goes beyond word of mouth. RadioShack puts help wanted ads on its receipts. A Target store in suburban Dallas has been distributing help wanted fliers along with receipts. Officials

Officials at Target’s corporate headquarters didn’t return calls to The Associated Press.

At a Best Buy in Dallas, most seasonal employees are customers already familiar with what the store sells, general manager Kathy Garcia said. Most applicants say they have an interest in consumer electronics and most frequently want to work selling DVDs, video games or CDs, she said.

Best Buy also provides incentives to current employees, who receive $150 bonuses for holiday employee referrals, Garcia said.

Since seasonal retail jobs are temporary and typically pay little more than minimum wage, workers might not be enthusiastic about their paychecks. But they might be excited about the store’s products or the employee discount, said Mark Jaffe, president of Wyatt & Jaffe, an executive search firm in Minneapolis.

That’s why recruiting customers is so effective, he said.

“If you can see yourself first as a customer, it’s a lot easier to see yourself as an employee on a part-time basis,” Jaffe said. “When a customer is buying, you somehow have to spin a web or create some magic or some kind of an intimacy with that buyer that makes them feel like this is a cool and not undignified place to spend a few hours a week.”

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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