Retail and Restaurant Recruiting Goes Online

Here’s a riddle: Who is 18-25 on average, the first generation raised on the Internet since childhood, and ó strangely ó one of the last audiences for which companies leverage the Internet to recruit? If you guessed retail workers, buy yourself a ham sandwich! But the successes that some companies are having driving retail candidates to the web signal that the old days of walk-in applications and kiosks are soon coming to an end. In the last several years, companies like the Home Depot, Target, and Blockbuster have been written up in several publications for their use of job kiosks and IVR lines (Integrated Voice Response, i.e. phone lines that allow a menu of options that are then converted into an electronic application) to supplement their recruiting efforts while still realizing the benefits of automation. These efforts have largely paid off: millions in cost savings have been realized; hiring time has been reduced; and new hire quality and retention rates have improved. More importantly, perhaps, these organizations were able to overcome retail management’s fear of losing the ever-important walk-in applicant by taking an intermediate step towards full-scale online recruiting. The new generation of workers ó Generation Y ó represents the most wired generation that has ever lived. Research done by Carat Interactive last year showed that they use the Internet more than they watch TV. And this generation is now the primary target for retail and restaurant recruiting. So is it possible to recruit these individuals only on the web? The answer so far has been a resounding yes. Leaps of Faith Two Northwest retailers recently took their own leaps of faith into online recruiting, using applicant tracking systems that even I was skeptical were up to the task. Some of the common concerns they heard from hiring managers included:

  • “It will take too long for people to fill out the application.”
  • “We’ll lose walk-in applicants.”
  • “It will be difficult to train so many retail hiring managers.”
  • “The other company down the street or in the same mall will have an advantage over us.”
  • “Nobody will take the time to complete an online assessment.”
  • “People will freak out.” (my favorite)

In both companies, walk-in applicants were given a business card that drove them to the company’s employment website. In-store signage also drove applicants to the website. No kiosks or IVR lines were used. After filling out an online application, the best applicants as ranked by pre-screening questions were driven to an online assessment tool that measured and scored applicants based on several validated retail competencies, with separate assessments built for retail representatives and store managers. The best of these applicants were then automatically forwarded on to each hiring manager, with a list of behavioral interviewing questions. As for the results ó they surprised even me. There were almost no complaints from applicants. Hiring managers appreciated the speed at which they could now recruit, the fact that they didn’t have to sort through a mountain of resumes, and the fact that they could spend their time interviewing a higher quality applicant. The website gave the companies the opportunity to say more about what it was like to work in each organization, their benefits for retail workers, and the possibility to advance within the company ó which translated into interviewees who were more sold on working for each company and more excited about the interview process. In the end, both companies’ trials were so successful that they were able to launch them to all of their locations nationwide. Are Job Kiosks and IVR Systems Dead? Given the fact that job kiosks and IVR systems represent a potentially enormous expense, companies can potentially save themselves millions of dollars by driving candidates to the web. Kiosks can cost upwards of $3,000 each, and IVR lines have a high cost per applicant, in other words, a cost that will grow exponentially the more your hiring needs grow. Companies are also concerned about taking up valuable retail floor space with kiosk tools. I can’t say for certain that kiosks and IVR lines will ever completely go away. Many companies still see value in IVR tools, for instance, during large-scale and seasonal hiring initiatives when they simply can’t keep up with the volume. Other retailers like to provide multiple ways to apply as a service to their applicants, albeit an expensive one. But it’s worth examining the facts and considering the audience before undertaking such a large project that comes at considerable expense. The question of the day for many retail and restaurant recruiting teams is, “If we can drive people to the web successfully, what’s the point of an expensive alternative?” Showing an effective site like Retailology is often a strong counterpoint to those who insist on such tools. The Vendors Are Flocking One of the surest signs that retail recruiting is now a viable online entity is that the “invisible hand” of capitalism has started to outstretch. Job boards have recently increased their focus on the retail audience, with Monster and CareerBuilder both launching “skilled and hourly” products last year, each with sets of pre-screening criteria unique to retail (such as shift availability). Many employers also successfully use tools like FastWeb to recruit part-time or seasonal college students, or niche sites like AllRetailJobs, HCareers, or Hospitality Jobs Online. One major restaurant chain has been able to reduce its budget dramatically by hiring college students on a part-time basis, while increasing the quality of its hires. ATS vendors including Recruitmax, Deploy, Taleo, VirtualEdge, retail-industry pioneer Unicru, and others are also starting to make retail recruiting a bigger part of their core products. Look for basic assessment capabilities, retail hiring manager interfaces, skills testing, radius candidate searches, and workflow enhancements specific to the retail recruiting process to be added or enhanced in many of the applicant tracking systems on the market today. Challenges To Overcome There are some things that are specific to retail and restaurant recruiting that need to be considered as you shift your recruiting efforts online:

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  • Retail and restaurant recruiting is an immediate response discipline. Candidates won’t wait for a response; they need a job right now. That’s why systems and processes need to be set up to respond immediately to retail candidates with feedback on whether or not they fit the job. A one- or two-month wait isn’t going to work for a starving college student or one who needs a summer job so they can pay for their meals (or beer) during the school year.
  • Capturing walk-in traffic is also crucial. If you have chosen to forego kiosks and IVR lines, then you must still gain potential candidates’ attention and present whatever online tool you are driving them to as a benefit to the applicant. In-store signage (if allowed) should be prominent, and your hiring managers should have the option of giving a potential candidate who needs it something to walk away with, like a business card or one-sheet brochure.
  • Change management and training also presents issues. You may, after all, be dealing with thousands of geographically dispersed hiring managers. Many companies use WebEx demos and online resources for hiring managers to help overcome the training obstacles ó but be prepared for a potentially massive resistance to change with a strong internal communication plan that sets expectations, establishes goals and metrics, and positions the benefits to your managers and executives.
  • Online assessments really work in retail and restaurant settings. Of all of the tools you may consider using, online assessments have been proven to work time and time again. Done well, they reduce turnover and shrinkage, and increase employee engagement.

There is, of course, no one approach that works for everyone. So I’d love to hear from more of the retail and restaurant recruiters on the front lines. What has been effective for you? What innovative approaches are you seeing out there or have you implemented? And what other trends do you see on the horizon? Please respond by posting a review below!

Dave Lefkow is currently the CEO of talentspark (, a consulting firm that helps companies use technology to gain a competitive advantage for talent, and a regular contributor to ERE on human capital, technology, and branding related subjects. He is also an international speaker on human capital trends and best practices, having spoken in countries as close as Canada and as far away as Malaysia and Australia. His consulting work has spanned a wide variety of industries and recruiting challenges with companies like Starbucks, Boeing, HP, Microsoft, Expedia, Washington Mutual, Nike and Swedish Medical Center.


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