Unconventional applications

Features - State of the Industry: Staffing

If your garden center is struggling to find enough applicants, flexible scheduling and out-of-the-box thinking can help you fill open positions.

November 8, 2022

Photo © vikakurylo81 | Adobe Stock

Being in the retail industry, and particularly the garden center industry, the No.1 challenge that comes up over and over again is the challenge in finding labor. ‘Help wanted’ messages fill shop windows, fast-food marquees, the backs of trucks, buses, vans and cars — even direct mail. It seems clear that so many entrepreneurs are in the same boat: not enough staff to run our businesses effectively and not enough applicants. So, what do we do? How do we respond? How do we change and adapt to keep this new normal from wrecking our businesses? We can start by changing our hiring strategies.

For years, garden centers have operated on a staffing model of experienced sales personnel supported by employees with less experience. In this case, much of the team is employed full time. But it has become harder and harder to hire for those full-time positions. Experienced plant people, or even experienced retail people, are becoming more difficult to find as they are already gainfully and happily employed.

Part-time potential

Remember all those ‘help wanted’ signs? With unemployment at pre-COVID-19 rates and so many early retirements or shifts to 1099 positions like Uber, Instacart, the pool of people looking for work is tiny. So how do you find your next new employee? By shifting your perspective on who is your ideal next hire, changing what requirements your positions entail and splitting some of those full-time positions into part-time ones.

Retirees and 1099 contractors are not necessarily forever out of the workforce. They can make excellent part-time team members for your garden center. They value flexibility over cash, generally, so leading with an ever-elevating dollar-per-hour pay rate is not what’s going to grab their eye; it’s phrases like “Flexible scheduling” or “A few shifts a week.”

By targeting retirees and 1099 contractors, you are not necessarily fighting for the same unemployed or underemployed people as all the other retailers on Main Street, you are bringing someone with experience back into the workforce. They may not even know they want a part-time job right now, and they are probably not on a hiring website. They consider your open position through your signage, word of mouth and email campaigns.

Flexibility and just a few shifts a week are likely key points to attract them, which perhaps you would never have considered previously. Still, it sure is appealing when you have to run the cash register yourself because you’re short on staff!

Another pool of potential candidates is students. Perhaps there’s a high school or college close by. Many students are willing to take on a part-time job to add experience to their resume and earn some spending money. These candidates will be looking for part-time or erratic hours, and will not have much experience. Still, many of the tasks at a garden center are well-suited for someone with minimal experience. They’re likely familiar with technology and will be good with the cash register. They may even be able to help with social media! These underutilized populations can be excellent assets for your shop and can fill in some scheduling gaps on evenings and weekends.

Parents not working outside the home are another option to fill some open positions. They may have all their children in school and can be ready to add some part-time work to their schedules, but they must be available to both pick up and drop off their children, stay home with sick kids and work around student holidays and summer vacation. Many employers would quickly say that availability and lack of consistency will not work for their business, but it may be great for a garden center to get a few mid-day shifts a week from someone with skills and life experience. They could potentially provide coverage for lunch breaks, process shipments, set up displays or provide administrative support.

Finding part-timers

Now all of this sounds well and good — tapping into underutilized populations by offering flexible scheduling options. But where do you find these people? Traditional ‘help wanted’ advertising on websites like Indeed is ineffective at tapping into these demographics. Some potential candidates may not even be actively looking for work. They are retired, stay-at-home parents, already receiving 1099 income or full-time students, after all.

A carefully crafted message may make them consider that a position at a garden center is exactly what their life lacks. In-house advertising with messaging that prominently features flexible scheduling, no industry experience necessary and a great fit for non-traditional schedules is ideal. Specifically mentioning retirees, stay-at-home parents, students and those already working are also great tactics. Your garden center is the perfect place for fast-learning, energetic, flexible, quick thinkers who love being outdoors and enjoy discounts on plants.

Include a range of pay rather than a set dollar figure, and don’t lead with that as your headline. The pay is likely not what is going to make them apply. That messaging can be featured in emails, on bag stuffers at your checkout, on all of your social media, on your website, at the career centers in area schools and with your local Chamber of Commerce. Consider adding a line to the advertisement that mentions, “Maybe you know someone who would be interested,” and your customers will begin sharing the opportunity with others.

Filling your roster

Inherently there are some challenges that come with expanding your workforce with part-time employees. The obvious first challenge is that there will be more people required to cover the same hours as a full-time employee. Having more employees means more break room area, more parking, more uniform expenses and more challenges getting messaging out to the team. Training is another area of challenge. An inexperienced workforce will require more training hours and perhaps a more formal training program or scheduling.

It also requires managers to determine what tasks truly require previous garden center or retail experience, and which do not. Another challenge is the unconventional availability these new employees may have. The existing shifts at your IGC may not fit their availability, and alterations might be required. Flexibility is key for these team members, so a clear system for requesting time off needs to be in place with clear requirements, as time off with these employees tends to be more frequent. Be sure to hire more than is needed, if at all possible, to accommodate for frequent time-off requests, student holidays and sick days.

The current labor challenges are universal and seem here to stay for the foreseeable future, so business owners and managers urgently need to adapt. Creating a shop with attractive positions for underutilized portions of the workforce may be key to getting the staffing levels required in a garden center. And it may be just the approach our industry needs to stay competitive and provide that ever-important amazing customer experience.

Developing a great training program and ongoing recruiting planning are time consuming undertakings but will be key in the advancement of garden centers through these staffing challenges.

The author is general manager of her family’s business, Nalls Produce & Garden Center, just outside Washington D.C., along with being a certified retail coach with WhizBang Retail Training. She specializes in IGC marketing and management, and can be reached at valerie@valerienalls.com