It s autumn in New York>, and there s no shortage of options for frittering away a gloriously crisp Saturday afternoon. The Chelsea galleries have new exhibits, there s a goofy skateboard race in Central Park, and a pal from out of town wants to meet for lunch. But this is no day to make plans. The manager at my new job has me on call, just like a doctor or troubleshooting tech specialist. Only I won t be rushing in to perform heart surgery or stop a system meltdown. No, this is about folding trousers after the lunchtime rush.
Who knew being a part-time retail worker could be so demanding? This season more than half a million Americans will be working holiday jobs, greeting shoppers in stores ranging from Target to Prada. It is, in this tough economy, the ultimate fallback job not only for the traditional assemblage of after-school teens and moms earning Christmas cash, but also for legions of ex mortgage brokers, bankers and other laid-off white-collar types whose job hunts have fizzled. In the past year alone, the number of retail applicants over age 55 jumped 25 percent, says workforce-management outfit Kronos. But if the new wave of aspiring shelf stockers expects a waltz down the candy aisle, they re in for a reality check: That minimum-wage gig behind the cash register is harder to get than ever and even harder to keep.
Though few customers can see it, retail work is undergoing a revolution of sorts, with companies going to new extremes in their quest for efficient hiring (think online psychological testing) and more productive work. (They ve calculated how long it should take to hang a shirt.) This shift couldn t come at a worse time for all those unemployed professionals seeking a survival job or even a new career. Folks who thought they d have no problem landing a job at the Gap actually face daunting odds, with retailers shedding more than 850,000 jobs since early 2008. Seasonal hiring is down too. In fact, Kronos calculates that retailers are hiring just three workers for every 100 job applications they receive, a 57 percent reduction from three years ago. And once on the job, workers used to a degree of autonomy can find it tough to adjust to a world of tight control where much of the customer interaction is tightly scripted, and managers routinely search workers bags at the end of their shifts.
Retailers say all this helps them maintain quality customer service and boost efficiency in tough times. Still, with all the changes going on in the do-more-with-less era, I decided to go hunting for a holiday gig in New York City disclosing to store managers that I m a reporter and might write about my experience. I expected to visit a few stores, breeze through the interviews and enjoy a colorful reprieve from office work. I was, to say the least, in for a few surprises.
September feels like a fine time to find a Christmas job. After all, stores have been pushing the holidays earlier every year. But in store after store, harried managers tell me I m jumping the gun: We re not hiring yet. We haven t gotten our budgets. Indeed, analysts say that s because retailers, unsure of their holiday sales prospects this year, have delayed their usual staffing blitz. At Barney s I m directed out of the swanky showroom, around the corner and down a dank flight of stairs, where an irritable security guard tells me applications are available only from 2 to 5 p.m. (Barney s says hours are limited to half the day because its human-resources people are multitasking. ) At the sleek Apple [AAPL] outlet on Fifth Avenue, a clerk with a shaved head and thick black glasses waves me away with a curt response: Apple dot com slash jobs. In other words, paper applications don t exist I have to apply online.
Evidently, the days of old-fashioned paper applications are numbered. Discount retailers like Target, Sears and Wal-Mart have job seekers complete applications on in-store computer kiosks. Even Frederick s of Hollywood [FOH] (yes, I tried there, too) tells me to go home and download an application. Experts say chains are striving for a consistent customer-service experience across hundreds of stores and that a centralized hiring system is the best way to filter job hopefuls. We don t have the resources to interview 800,000 people, says Michael Theilmann, chief human-resources officer at JCPenney [JCP]. But that means having my fate decided over and over by a computer. And there s little human interaction unless you count the time a Sears computer kiosk invites me to return for an interview. The meeting lasts all of four minutes, and my interviewer doesn t bother saying my name or introducing herself. (A Sears spokesperson says the interview should have included a discussion of my qualifications for a specific position.)
Human interaction isn t a problem at Restoration Hardware, where I encounter another intriguing innovation, the group interview. With a half-dozen fellow job seekers, I sit in an office dotted with peppy slogans as an upbeat manager pops the routine questions ( How would a former employer describe you? ) and watches us duke it out in real time. One silver-haired gentleman in a crisp suit makes frequent allusions to his last job, at Tiffany; a woman in her 40s gushes about her past work experience at a Resto in Georgia. Not to be left out, a college student valiantly makes the case that working for his hometown parks department was perfect preparation for selling $4,000 sofas.
As the competition builds, the word love gets tossed around with alarming frequency. Everyone in the room loves Restoration Hardware. Everyone loves providing fantastic service. Everyone loves a positive attitude. The manager loves our answers. And yet, the exercise has been surprisingly revealing. In one hour, it s clear who can think on their feet, hold the group s attention and make a persuasive sales pitch. Through the company s chief values officer, DeMonty Price, I later learn that s precisely what they re after: Group interviews, he says, reveal high-energy people who can energize others.
Alas, Restoration Hardware s training schedule doesn t work out, and two weeks into the search, I m getting nervous. Bloomingdale s [M] e-mails a curt rejection with a forbidding P.S.: Please do not reply. The purple-vested manager at Ralph Lauren says he ll keep our application on file. What am I doing wrong? Maryam Morse, retail practice leader for the Hay Group, says I should just apply at my favorite store; it s probably where I d make the best fit. And that s how I land a job at J. Crew.