Back to School Shopping Highlights Retail Labor Challenges

There are times when retail chains face tough challenges with staffing levels. Obviously the holiday season is a major upswing in store traffic and sales activity for most stores, but holiday help is often abundant. Other times weather can influence store traffic, but adjustments can often be made in advance if store managers proactively check the weather forecast.

However, late August seems to be a significant challenge. This past weekend I was forced to take the family out for the dreaded, annual back-to-school shopping experience.  While the rainy weather likely contributed to the traffic, I was amazed at the chaos and shopping activity in virtually every store we visited – the big superstores, office supply stores, sporting goods stores, and of course the mall. It was AS BUSY as a December weekend, yet there was one major difference – the lack of staff available to assist shoppers. In some stores there was literally no staff to be found on the floor. In others, a few poor souls were frantically rushing to help more customers than they could possibly handle, causing both customers and workers to get visibly (and in some cases verbally) frustrated.

So why was this weekend in August so much more challenging than a shopping weekend in December?

One hypothesis is that a core of the retail workforce, college students, was completely unavailable. With many of them returning to campus during that time they were unavailable to work, and those that would replace them are not yet hired. Or, the replacement staff may be other students coming in to town for college that are too occupied with getting settled into campus, etc.

Is this common in the retail industry? Is it a trend that could be forecasted? Or was it just a fluke that the bad weather and potential labor shortage just amplified the situation?

What are your thoughts? I’d love to hear your comments…