HIGH POINT — With federal unemployment programs adding money on top of what people can get while in between jobs in most states, plus lingering uncertainty due to the pandemic, furniture retailers across the board are saying the hiring landscape is more competitive than it’s ever been.
“Unemployment is high, yet it’s hard to find help. And with the growth in our industry over the past year, we need more people now more than ever,” said Brad Schweig, vice president of operations for Dallas-based Sunnyland Outdoor Living.
“The headwinds are real. It’s a supply-and-demand problem with talent,” said Manny Rodrigues, chief operating officer of Fort Mill, S.C.-based Broad River Retail. “Talent will always find a home. There’s competitiveness in all the markets for these roles.”
Sam Zavary, president and CEO of Houston-based Exclusive Furniture, said while the additional unemployment benefits helped stabilize the economy last year when furloughs and layoffs hit, they also made some folks more comfortable staying at home vs. coming in to work.
“Did the truck drivers just all of a sudden leave? Did all the warehouse workers disappear? No. They’re just staying at home,” Zavary said. “The nation overreacted when the pandemic happened. It made the economy look stable and kept us out of a recession, but we have not touched the eye of the hurricane yet. We don’t know what we’re in for in the next two, three, four years.”
Plus, the increased unemployment benefits added a new competitor for the workforce, said Irwin Novack, CEO of Pinellas Park, Fla.-based Kane’s Furniture. He said positions that deal directly with the public are the most difficult to fill these days.
“I would describe it as challenging. … I think it’s a little more difficult when you’re competing against the government for employees,” Novack said. “People are being subsidized by the government. We’re not only competing against private industry, we’re competing against the public sector due to the subsidies.”
Schweig noted that tried-and-true hiring techniques from as recently as 2019 aren’t as effective in today’s landscape.
“I remember a few years ago I would post an ad on Indeed, and my mailbox would be pinging every few seconds with another resume coming in,” he said. “It’s been more challenging to get those resumes coming in now for all departments, and many of the ones that do come in are just not my ideal candidate. I’ve had to be more strategic on how I use the various hiring tools, put more effort into it and fine tune my listings to stand out more.”
To help counter some of these challenges, retailers are leaning into what makes their work environments unique and rewarding. For instance, Broad River upped pay across many departments and is relying on its strong corporate culture as a way to attract and retain Memory Makers (its name for salespeople) and other key positions.
“If you’re market competitive on compensation, at that point, it’s what’s going to separate everyone else. It’s making people say there’s something different at Broad River,” Downs said. “That’s where we lean into culture and all of the things we have going on. Even during a pandemic, the programs we’ve established for our Memory Makers, town hall recordings.”
Plus, during the early days of the pandemic, Broad River made sure that its furloughed employees had a job waiting for them when conditions improved and set aside funds to help them make ends meet.
“We made sacrifices across the board last April to make sure we had no layoffs. By June 30, we had full restoration of all positions,” said Broad River CEO Charlie Malouf. “We issued our own assistance checks before the federal government. A lot of our people still remember that; they remember how we took care of them, and that mattered a lot. All of those things were deposits of goodwill that we made that are helping us today.”
While holiday weekends usually provide big sales spikes, some retailers decided to further incentivize their sales associates during these key periods. Exclusive Furniture increased its starting pay across the board, but added other financial incentives for sales weekends that were triggered when salespeople didn’t miss any time or weren’t late for any of their shifts.
Zavary said Exclusive is also digging deeper to make sure its fleet of drivers feel appreciated.
“A lot (of drivers) are contractors. I think we’re paying the highest in delivery because we can’t afford to lose them to Amazon or Wayfair,” he said.
Competing the likes of the Amazon also weighs on the decisions made at Sunnyland. Schweig said the store plays up its small business strengths vs. the impersonal nature of working for a monolithic organization.
“We try to promote that we are a local family business, management’s door is always open, and we offer benefits to all of our employees,” Schweig said. “In the case of our warehouse workers, we feel that those factors are important when comparing us to an Amazon warehouse where the pay might be a little more but the hours are unreliable, there are no benefits, their boss might not know their name and a computer decides whether you are doing your job satisfactory or not.”
Even when new hires are made, there is turnover. Zavary said over the past 40 days, Exclusive Furniture hired 38 new salespeople with a 50% retention rate. Despite that level of turnover, he’s happy with those who remained.
“At the end of the day, you still want to get people in. It’s a win for us because we need salespeople,” he said. “People come to the store because they want salespeople to help them. Furniture doesn’t sell by itself in the store.”