November 21, 2019

Holiday Staffing in Retail: Is Unpredictable Scheduling a Must-Have?


Another festive season is upon us. Shoppers have already started making wishlists and exploring deals, while retailers are dashing through the snow to get their holiday staffing done in time.  

Last year, a whopping  8 out of 10 businesses claimed they’ll need extra workers during the holidays. Although retail trade employment is generally trending down, retailers and e-tailers are still short on workers in distribution centers and warehouses. Moreover, these companies need to ensure that their partners—for instance, those specialized in packing, shipping, and deliveries—are also adequately staffed for the busiest season of the year. And with the prediction of up to a 5% increase in 2019 holiday sales compared to last year, businesses large and small are going to have to up their game to keep up with the rush. 

Finding extra workers is only the first step. Your managers’ organizational and scheduling skills will dictate how productive your business will be. Holiday staffing in retail is synonymous with unpredictable employee schedules, justified by the assumption that managers cannot accurately forecast demand and staffing needs. Even during the alleged more manageable parts of the year, unstable schedules are a staple in retail: one in three employees report that they have a varying schedule set by their employer.  

But, is unstable employee scheduling really the optimal solution? How different can holiday seasons get, year after year? Could more stable schedules cut down the stress of the season, help retailers create more alluring job offers, and even improve the bottom line? Let’s examine this further.

Bonuses, perks, and gift cards—how retail enterprises attract seasonal workers

A bidding war to attract top talent is one of the most pervasive holiday staffing traditions. Since Inc. has raised its minimum wage to $15 (more than double than the federal minimum wage), the company has become one of the fiercest competitors for retail workers. 

To fight back, companies employ various strategies to differentiate themselves on the job market. Kohl’s Corp gets in the holiday spirit early—this year, they started their seasonal hiring for 500 stores in July. In 2018, J.C. Penney Corp held a giveaway for hourly and seasonal workers that stayed with the company until December 28. Target Corp. organized drawings for $500 gift cards, while remaining on their 3-year course of increasing the minimum wage from $10 to $15. Macy’s Inc has commenced with a bonus plan based on performance for full-time, part-time and seasonal employees. 

While these perks may seem out of the ordinary, what is even more surprising is that there’s not a lot of buzz about work schedules. Certainly, there are businesses that implement predictive scheduling practices outside the holiday season—some states even mandate it. However, it’s unclear whether the curious benefits retailers are offering are their attempt to compensate for less than stable shift schedules.  Seasonal workers are expected to tend to a larger number of customers, keep track of holiday deals and promotions, adhere to tight deadlines for shipping and deliveries, and so much more. It seems that overtime work, missed breaks, and staff shortage are a given.

How are prospective workers affected by this rise in labor demand? For one, they have more choice and potentially even a stronger negotiating position when discussing wages, working hours, and benefits. Nevertheless, that doesn’t make it any less challenging to work during the holiday rush. Between volatile shift schedules, brash customers doing their last-minute shopping, and, of course, a pull to be with one’s family and friends, it’s no wonder that it’s not the most wonderful time of the year for store, merchandize, stocking and other retail associates.

How irregular scheduling practices undermine holiday staffing

Before we go into the specifics of holiday staffing in retail, let us first outline the dimensions of employee scheduling as such. 

Susan J. Lambert, Associate Professor at the School of Social Service Administration, University of Chicago, describes several aspects of staff rosters and states that all of them should be discussed when examining poor scheduling practices: 

  • Adequacy: whether employees are assigned an adequate number of hours to be able to earn enough income
  • Stability: how much the schedules vary in terms of number of hours and timing
  • Predictability: whether employees get advance notice about their schedule and are able to anticipate their hours
  • Standard/non-standard timing: whether employees work a standard 9-5, Monday-to-Friday or a so-called unsocial time (for instance, night shifts and weekends)
  • Control/flexibility: whether employees participate in the scheduling process

When discussing unstable schedules, the Professor says, we should actually address all of these dimensions. 

Poor scheduling practices cause financial instability, hurt work-life balance, and jeopardize employees’ overall wellbeing, as detailed in the Health Outcomes Report of the Stable Scheduling Study conducted with Gap Inc. One of the most striking findings is that 51% of workers reported at least moderate food insecurity in the past month. More than half of fathers (56%) and 39% of mothers employed at Gap claimed that they had to cancel an event or appointment in the past three months that was important to their child because of their work schedule. Almost a third of students (28%) found it difficult to organize their time, between classes and their assigned shifts. Finally, 19% of respondents stated that they delayed going to the doctor or getting prescriptions filled because of financial concerns in the past three months. 

As mentioned earlier, one of the justifications for unstable schedules is the supposed managers’ inability to predict wildly fluctuating business demand. However, it seems that weekly staffing needs do not dramatically oscillate year after year, even during seasonal peaks and drops. Associate Professor Lambert states that week-on-week staffing forecasts are over 90% accurate and that managers actually make suboptimal schedules when they anticipate major staffing fluctuations. 

So, one can imagine how irregular scheduling practices are even more detrimental during the holidays. On top of their usual to-do list, schedulers and managers need to handle peak demand, an increase in time off requests, training seasonal workers, etc. What is encouraging, though, is that stable schedules are not out of reach. 

Implementing schedule stability this holiday season

So, if fluctuating customer demand is not the primary driver of schedule instability, what is? The aforementioned research at Gap Inc. unveiled three key factors that temper with schedule stability.

  1. Inaccurate details about shipment dates and quantity: store managers often get little notice about changes in shipment plans, which leads to last-minute schedule changes.
  2. Frequent changes of in-store promotions: when promotions are changed multiple times a week, managers are left to scramble for workers who they can task to change signage and do markdowns.
  3. Unexpected leadership visits: managers may get short notice about visits from the HQ, so they need to schedule extra hours for getting the store ready.

These instability drivers are passed down from headquarters, making it difficult for schedulers to account for them. Even when they have the best intentions to make their rosters more predictable for the staff, they cannot discount these destabilizing factors. 

However, this finding is a valuable input that can be used in discussions on implementing schedule stability. Even with an advanced employee scheduling process, creating perfect schedules is impossible without establishing clear rules that both corporate and store management can agree on. 

clothes in a retail store

There are also several best practices schedulers and supervisors can employ to optimize holiday staffing. 

  • Posting shift schedules at least a month in advance—and no last-minute changes. Compile data on sales and traffic from previous holiday seasons and explore trends in the market to inform your demand-based schedule. Trust the research discussed above: if your forecasts are generally good, making subsequent schedule changes will do your business a disservice.  
  • Keeping an eye on compliance. With the holiday rush, labor law updates may slip through the cracks. Ensure your schedules are bulletproof to avoid excessive legal fees, especially regarding overtime and meal and rest periods
  • Allowing employees to trade shifts with minimal manager intervention. Your store managers should be kept in the loop about who works when, but in case of unexpected absences, it’s more efficient that the employees arrange trade shifts independently.
  • Offering flexible scheduling as a benefit. Your current and prospective employees are celebrating too, so they will appreciate getting more control over their working hours. Your business will benefit from this too, with a rise in productivity, team morale, and retention.


Volatile shift schedules only make holiday staffing more difficult than it needs to be. Although the season can get overwhelming, don’t doubt your managers’ ability to predict this kind of chaos—after all, you can’t fight fire with fire.