Short-staffed: How Retailers Can Manage Staffing Challenges

Illustration of a disgruntled shopper with arms full of clothing looking for a sales associate

Retailers often find themselves short staffed. Especially during peak periods, this can lead to long lines and frustrated customers, which isn’t ideal for your customer experience. However, there are a few things retailers can do to manage staffing challenges.

Whether it’s a better mix of full-time or part-time employees, or exploring automation to streamline the customer support process, retailers have a number of options worth trying. 

This guide walks through the what, when, where, and how of short staffing so that managers can lower the impact it may have on their bottom line.

Table of Contents

Short-staffed meaning

When a business is short-staffed it means the business does not have enough employees to cover all of the shifts or positions that need to be filled. This can happen for a variety of reasons, including an increase in business, employees quitting or being fired without a long enough notice, or employees taking unscheduled time off. 

Whatever the reason, being short-staffed can be a challenge for any business, but it is especially difficult for retail businesses, which often rely on having a certain number of staff on the clock to ensure the business is operating smoothly. 

Why are businesses short-staffed?

There are a number of reasons why businesses—retail businesses in particular—may be short-staffed. One is the current labor shortage. Due to worldwide events like the recent COVID pandemic and its resulting effects on supply chains, and new compensation expectations, retailers are finding themselves in a staffing dilemma as positions become harder to fill with qualified employees. 

Although 79% of retail shoppers believe knowledgeable sales associates are important, retailers are having a hard time finding employees that can fill positions that are up to par with customer expectations. April of 2021 saw the biggest number of retail resignations, amounting to a total of 11 million vacant positions. This leaves current retail management with two options: Get creative with how they attract and retain quality employees and figure out how much they can squeeze from their existing resources. 

Effects of being short-staffed

Being short-staffed comes with a few short- and long-term effects, including:

Poor customer service

Poor customer service is one of the most common effects of being short-staffed. When there aren’t enough employees to cover all of the shifts, the employees who are working are often overworked and unable to give each customer the attention they deserve. This results in long lines, frustrated customers, and ultimately, a loss of business.

Employee morale

Employee morale is another common effect of being short staffed. When employees are overworked and understaffed, stress and job dissatisfaction ensues. What happens then? Employees are more prone to quitting calling in sick more often, and are overall less productive. The effects are plenty, including higher turnover rates that ultimately affect a retailer’s bottom line. 

Missed business opportunities

Without plenty of hands on deck for retail operations to run smoothly, businesses miss out on creating projects like rearranging their sales floor for the holiday season or manning visual merchandise displays that lead to sales. 

The best solutions for staff shortages

Consider a few long-term solutions for staff shortages for your retail business.

Invest in retail training

One of the best long-term solutions for staff shortages is to invest in retail training that properly equips employees with the know-how necessary for better customer experiences. Retail training helps employees with efficiency as they become more  knowledgeable about the products they are selling and how they can help best customers with in-store tasks. 

As you invest in retail training, both hard and soft skills are critical for optimal outcomes. This increases revenue, morale, and productivity across your team. 

Revise your current employee schedule 

Maybe your current schedule was able to get you through your slowest and busiest weeks. But the retail landscape—as well as employee and customer expectations—have shifted, which means a rotating schedule may be in order. 

A rotating schedule is best for businesses that always need staff on duty. It’s a way to provide flexibility to your workforce without having to deal with gaps in shifts. The good thing is you can choose from a few tried-and-proven rotating schedules to ensure you work with one that fits your retail needs, including:

  • The pitman shift schedule
  • Dupont shift schedule
  • Rotating weekend schedule
  • 24-48 shift schedule
  • A 4-3 shift schedule

Get better at prioritization

If you find yourself constantly short-staffed, it may be time to take a look at your prioritization skills. Often, the reason businesses are short-staffed is because they are trying to do too much with too few employees. 

Employees become overworked and stressed, which then leads to quitting, low morale, and disengagement. To avoid this, try to prioritize the most important tasks—including the ones that matter to your employees, like fair scheduling and on-the-job support—and delegate the rest. This way, you make the best use of your employees’ time and maintain healthy employee retention rates

Improve employee benefits

The data is clear: By offering better benefits, retailers can attract and retain the best employees. Consider Gen Z and millennials as the biggest current workforce demographic—82% of them want mental health days as part of their employee policy. 

As a retailer, there are plenty of benefits you can offer to make open positions more appealing, including: 

  • Improved health insurance plans
  • Retirement savings options
  • HSA options
  • Mental health benefits
  • Paid leave
  • College payment aid
  • Performance bonuses 

As times change quickly and technology sets new customer and employee expectations, retailers have no choice but to get creative in how they solve short-staffing issues. 

Partner with colleges/local organizations to create pathways

If you’re having difficulty finding qualified employees, you may want to consider partnering with colleges or local organizations to create job pathways. By partnering with these organizations, you’re able to create a pipeline of qualified employees who are ready to join your company. As you develop and manage these relationships locally, it can help lower staffing issues as a long-term strategy. 

Explore automation and technology to support staff

If you’re a retailer, chances are you’re dealing with a POS system to help you complete transactions, track inventory, and produce receipts. But your POS system can also help you manage staff and staff accounts.

For example, Shopify’s POS system enables retail managers to add or remove staff and set PINs. This makes it easier for staff to hop on and help with cashiering and transaction duties if a shift happens to be short-staffed. With the help of technology, retail managers can ease the process of ensuring staff is equipped and available at all times. 

Offer competitive wages

If you want to keep your employees from leaving, offering competitive wages is one of the best ways to retain them. It helps you retain your best and most productive employees while lowering costly turnover rates, increasing employee morale, and lessening the impact of undue staff shortages. By paying employees more, you take a possible compensation issue off the table. 

Make temporary hires (especially during the holiday seasons)

Especially during the holiday season, temporary hires help retailers get through the busiest months of the year without having to onboard long-term full-time employees. Temporary work may be appealing to employees juggling multiple jobs or that may be looking for extra income during the holiday season. Temp agencies can provide extra staff on an as-needed basis, often at a lower cost than full-time hires.

Improve your onboarding process

Retailers can often use onboarding processes that are clunky, time-consuming, and costly. By improving your onboarding process, you'll be able to help employees feel supported and enabled to do their jobs. 

The onboarding process can be enriched by setting designated orientation days for new employees, offering an employee portal, and providing training materials and resources that will help them ease into their new workplace responsibilities. However, if you want to get really advanced with how you manage your onboarding process, using AI to onboard new employees is quickly becoming a common option. 

Publicly recognize your best employees

Have employees that constantly excel in their position? Keep them from leaving by publicly rewarding your best employees. This can take the form of:

  • Appreciation gift cards
  • Extended lunch breaks
  • Giving surprise time off
  • Recognizing their birthdays
  • Offering a small personalized gift

Consider using an employee referral program

Using an employee referral program is another great way to help solve the staff shortage problem. About 55% of companies say employee referral programs help reduce the time and cost of the hiring process. Establishing a referral program also ensures you’re vetting better candidates. 

Increase manager involvement in the day-to-day operations

By increasing manager involvement in the day-to-day operations, retailers can free up some of their employees’ time so that they can focus on other customer service tasks. This also allows managers to get to know their employees better, manage tasks that require more direction, and it can also help retail managers identify any potential staff shortages before they happen.

Make sure employees are cross-trained

Having employees cross-trained in multiple areas helps to ensure that businesses can still function even when they are short-staffed. Your merchandise stockers should be able to handle cashiering tasks and manage returns or exchanges. This will help to reduce the stress on any group of employees on the clock and will also ensure operations run smoothly no matter who is working. 

Beyond staff shortages

Dealing with a staffing problem can be done from a few different angles, from how you interview and onboard employees to how you manage your employee schedules. If you’re a business owner, it’s important to be aware of the short- and long-term effects of being short-staffed. This way, you'll be equipped to make the necessary changes to avoid them—or at the very least lower its overall impact on your sales.

Short staffed FAQ

Why is there a labor shortage?

The most recent COVID pandemic has had a profound impact on the economy and the labor market. As a result, it led to a decrease in the demand for goods and services, which has resulted in layoffs and furloughs, and a decrease in hours worked. This, in turn, has led to employees quitting in large numbers and demanding better compensation.

What can you do when you are short-staffed?

There are a few things businesses can do to combat the effects of being short-staffed, including: 

  • Invest in retail training
  • Offer incentives for employees to stay with the company
  • Get better at prioritization
  • Improve employee benefits
  • Partner with colleges or local organizations to create pathways
  • Invest in automation and technology

How can you avoid being short-staffed in the long term?

There are a few things that businesses can do to avoid being short-staffed in the long term, including:

  • Invest in retail training
  • Offer incentives for employees to stay with the company
  • Partner with colleges or local organizations to create pathways
  • Invest in better onboarding methods