How to Make Retail Jobs Fun Again

People are what make your company culture. Who are your people? This is the question I’m exploring today with retail HR specialist, Suzanne Sears. From emerging job descriptions and COVID shortages, to service excellence at the frontlines, we’re going to talk about how retail brands can become more future-focused by finding the right people for the right position. Suzanne, welcome.


Melinda: Hi, I’m Melinda, and you’re listening to Think Retail.

People are what make your company culture. Who are your people? This is the question I’m exploring today with retail HR specialist, Suzanne Sears. From emerging job descriptions and COVID shortages, to service excellence at the frontlines, we’re going to talk about how retail brands can become more future-focused by finding the right people for the right position. Suzanne, welcome.

Suzanne: Well, hello. I’m so pleased to be joining you, and I hope that I can give some insight to people who maybe don’t understand how staffing works in retail and especially during COVID.

Melinda: Absolutely. So, can you start us off by telling us a bit about what you do for retail brands and how you got there?

Suzanne: Oh, boy. How did I get there? Well, my entire career basically has been in retail right from my first part-time job selling shoes in high school. And then I advanced along into management, and regional, and then Ontario regional. It came to the point where I ended up owning some of my own stores. So, I’ve done everything from build stores, design and build them from the slab up, to secure financing, to buying inventory. So, you name it, I’ve pretty well done it.

How I came into recruiting was a bit of a fluke. It never occurred to me, but a person I knew who still is a retail recruiter said, “I’m swamped. Can you take this job for me and find somebody and fill that role?” So, I went and did it for him, and I thought, “This is actually fun, I think I’m going to do more of this.” So, I kept on doing it and he gave me more and more roles to fill. And finally, he came to me about six months later and said, “Suzanne, go out on your own.” “Well, why?” He said, “Because I can’t make a living because you’re filling all my roles.” He says, “Launch your own company.” And I went, “I can’t, I don’t know anybody.” And he said, “Oh, you’ll be fine.” And sure enough, that’s how it started. And it’s just grown from there.

So, originally, it was just recruiting and then it branched into writing opinion pieces. I do a lot of articles for a lot of magazines online and otherwise. And then a lot of consulting. And basically, it covers the whole spectrum, from the boardroom right down to the street front-facing people because you can’t separate one from the other. So, I’ve been doing this type of guidance and counseling and recruiting for, I guess, it’s 11 or 12 years now.

Melinda: Wow. You’ve had your hand in everything.

Suzanne: Yeah, pretty much. I mean, it’s natural to me because of my background in retail. So, maybe that gives me a bit of an edge. I think it’s hard for people to jump right out of HR school and go into retail recruiting because they haven’t actually lived it.

Melinda: Yeah. So, I want to start at the front lines and then we’ll work our way to management. And I want to start there because frontline workers had a really tough year last year. They bore the brunt of some of the biggest challenges of the pandemic. And now, we’ve got vaccines approved, there’s some hopefulness. Can you kind of give us a level set of what’s happening with frontline workers right now in retail?

Suzanne: Retailers are desperate to hire them. Frontline workers are very reluctant to go back to work.

Melinda: Yeah, of course.

Suzanne: Demand and supply has become a huge problem. Now, most of this lack of supply you’re seeing in Toronto and surrounding areas, but it’s actually endemic across the country. There’s a huge resistance for frontline people to get back into that line of work. It seems counterintuitive. The employers think, “Oh, thousands of people are laid off. I’ll just throw up an ad. Thousands of people will rush forward and apply.” And what they’re finding is next to no one’s applying. So, they’re confused. And from the perspective of the former retail frontline workers, they’re like, “No, you know, I’m going to take a lot of convincing if I ever return to that level of work.”

Melinda: Right. So, what can retailers do to bring those frontline workers back into stores?

Suzanne: Well, there’s a few problems that have existed before COVID. Now, going into COVID, retail was understaffed by about 10 percent. In other words, there were way more vacancies that they hadn’t filled to begin with going in. So, what retailers ended up doing, and they tried their hardest, but they basically put the whole workload of all the COVID issues onto just a few, just a few. So, people were beginning to realize, “I’m doing two jobs for the price of one.” So, I think the first step that retailers have to do is give people back the jobs that they had before. And believe me, they aren’t the jobs they had before. Now, it’s called “Come in an hour early and spend an hour disinfecting, doing cleaning.” Now, a part of their daily job is COVID surveillance, questioning, line monitoring. These are not what they signed on to do, right? So, I think number one, the retailers have to absolutely give them back the jobs they really had before where that’s possible. And they’re going to have to hire people to do the support work. You know, you take a professional salesperson to come back to do cleaning? That’s not really appealing to them.

The minimum wage has to go up. I mean, at $14.25 an hour in Ontario and I think Alberta’s now at $15, but a lot of the provinces are still inching along at $9. The wage just can’t stay that low. If you look historically over the last 20 years, wages have not even closely kept up to the cost of living. So, you have to make a job worth taking. So, you see lots of discussion about the Americans raising to $15 an hour, and that’s actually equivalent to $20 an hour Canadian. And quite honestly, it’s very difficult to get a frontline worker anymore for less than $18 an hour anyway. So, the thinking that, well, we can keep paying $14.25 or less is just not going to happen for you. It’s not. So, we’re going to have to raise the minimum wage. Secondarily, they’re going to have to put in paid sick pay whether the government mandates it or not.

Melinda: Yeah. I was just going to ask you that. You headed me off for my next question. Yeah. Tell me about that.

Suzanne: Well, you know, prior to COVID, we saw it a lot. People writing on LinkedIn and other social media, “I feel like hell, but if I don’t go to work, I’m not going to get paid, and I might get let go.” So, what could we have done in this pandemic if a person who felt like that when we really weren’t sure what they had, we didn’t know too much, if that person said, “You know, I think I should just stay home.” Could we have controlled the spread? Well, you know, sick pay has about 4 parecnt to payroll budget. So, inevitably, HR departments loathe to suggest it, right? They don’t want to do it. But on the other hand, what was the cost of shutting your business down for a year?

Melinda: Yeah, I know, also the cost of then having to now recruit people who don’t want to come back to work knowing that they don’t have that cushion there.

Suzanne: They don’t have the security. No. I mean, it’s easy to say, well, the government has this little program, so if you get sick and you have to stay home for COVID, well, most people’s experience outside of the actual CERB program, now they’re dealing with EI. It’s not been a good experience. It’s not like I’m off work today and I’ll see money next week. It’s been miserable and it’s basically not worth the risk. So, I think employers have to raise the minimum wage and instead of saying, “Oh, well, you know, COVID has wrecked everybody, they can’t afford it.” At this point, they can’t afford not to do it. Even when they raised the minimum wage to $14 an hour, they said, “Oh, the economy will shrink…” It didn’t happen. It’s never happened. There’s no historical proof that raising wages crushes business. It just has never happened. So, they’ve got to raise wages, they’ve got add sick pay. They have to provide the actual job that people had before and not cleaning and security jobs. So, those are the three things. I think the fourth thing is, you know, what’s in it for me, right? What is the career path now? When you join a company, you like to feel you’re going to grow, but the companies are so confused. One day they have six stores and the next day they’ve got one store and the next day they’re doing online, it’s just completely confusing. So, they have to spend more time training, more time giving people a reason to stay, to stay with them.

Can you imagine you go to work, this week you’ve got 40 hours, next week you’ve got 15? This is an old problem. It’s what we call scheduling abuse, where retailers say, “Well, I’ll book you for 40.” “Oops, we’re not busy. We’re not going to use you.” But it makes it impossible to plan a life, to plan childcare, to budget. So, retailers have to let that go. If you hire someone for 40, you’re going to have to give them 40. Period. So retailers have to step up their game and make retail as a career more humane, right?

Melinda: Yeah. It’s an overarching theme of doing what’s right is what I’m hearing you say. 

Suzanne: It’s true. You know, a lot of brands have certain cachet. People want to work for them because they want the discount on the clothes and they want to be attached to that brand. So, some retailers have taken the position for a long time, “Well, you’re lucky to work for us.” I can tell you it isn’t that way anymore. Now, they’re lucky to have people work for them. And this mind shift, you know, this complete transition of employee-first has historically never existed. It’s never happened before. I mean, you could go back to Henry Ford to find the last time employees had any power at all. So, I think until retail grasps that it’s the employees-first, they’re going to struggle. I have clients who are getting zero applications, zero.

Melinda: Wow.

Suzanne: Now, sitting on top of that, your social media branding determines who’s willing to apply for your jobs. I mean, you get half a dozen bad reviews on Glassdoor and, you know, people check. People check. So, it is more about the frontline staff who’s choosing you as opposed to you choosing them.

Melinda: And I think a lot of this also comes down to leadership as well. So, I want to talk about management. As you’re saying, retail, it’s not just about a focus on the employee, but just sort of being future-focused generally is something that retail’s maybe been a bit behind on and starting to change. How are you seeing this play out in terms of what kind of people retail brands are seeking now for leadership?

Suzanne: I think the biggest transition in the last two years has been job descriptions that are heavily weighted to people skills, people learning, people teaching. That was never a part. You could look at any retail job, leadership job, and it would say, “Able to drive sales, year over year increase, able to control profit.” There was a heavy focus on financial results. Now, for the first time, you’re seeing candidates being evaluated on, “Well, how many people did you train and promote? How do you handle performance reviews? How do you turn around…?” This was never a big part, maybe a tiny part, but it’s a huge part now. They’re looking for managers who are much more empathetic than, you know, command and control. So, that’s a big shift. Big shift.

Melinda: What challenges are you facing in terms of finding people to fill these positions with these types of skills?

Suzanne: It is a big challenge because we’re asking managers to do something they’ve never had to do, probably were never trained to do. I mean, you have to understand that all of that, the warm fuzzy stuff had basically been shifted to HR. HR would handle the performance reviews. HR would send out policy and procedure. That was shifted to HR while the manager simply focused on driving sales. Well, that’s coming off of the HR banner and being put more down to the managers, and managers who are just simply sales-driven are finding their value is much less. They’re being replaced by warmer, inclusive, fuzzier managers. So, it is hard to find, but it’s not their fault. No one ever asked them to be like that before. But the only way to survive that is if HR puts into play various learning programs.

It’s interesting. About two or three years ago, you’d almost never saw any companies that had Learning Managers, Adult Education Teachers, any of those roles. You almost never saw that. Now, it’s one of the hottest sectors going, where all these firms are quickly trying to find technology, learning technology, learning managers, training managers. And that’s not about product training, it’s about interpersonal training, how to work with various personalities. So, this is new, and I think maybe the best managers will embrace it and say, “Okay, you know, I have to be more hands-on with my people.” And those that don’t adapt, I’m afraid, will not be around.

Melinda: So, if we were to now think about leadership in the sort of head office, those directors, how are you seeing a shift there in terms of finding the strongest candidates?

Suzanne: Wow. This is a big challenge, and the reason for it is, by the time you’re a director, you usually have about 10 years experience in retail at a level below. And so, you come into your director’s role only with the skills that you’ve learned to that date. And all of a sudden, it’s a whole online world. All of a sudden, you have staff that works half the time remotely. All of a sudden, you know, it’s an entire new playbook. The people who have been in retail 20 years or more find it hard to adjust. They really do. And some of them have said, “Now, this new age stuff, I’m not into. I’m leaving.” So, there is quite a shortage of people with the forward-thinking skills. And once again, it comes back to the companies are going to have to train people. They aren’t coming to you anymore fully complete, out of the gate, ready to roll. They’re going to have to be trained. And I think you will know that in the past 5 years, 10 years, when someone asked for a director, they wanted a full, complete package director, identical to what they had before. They were not prepared to do any training at all. So, the overarching theme here from the street to director level is you aren’t going to find a surplus of what you want. You’re going to have to find the core, basic personality, some core skills, and then train it. You just don’t have a choice.

Melinda: And if we were to look at diversity or obviously having a huge conversation about promoting people into leadership, how can companies ensure they’re not just hiring diverse candidates, but making sure that they’re giving them what they need to thrive and excel within the company?

Suzanne: Actually, HR themselves are really in tune with that issue these days. Getting it enacted at store level comes down to the district managers and the directors. And then once again, it’s about training them. Diversity in Canada is nowhere near the massive problem it is in the USA. However, you will see that some racism exists in the sense that there are traditional fields like cellular and technology that, by and large, are dominated by foreign nationals more so than Canadians, you know, like Canadian-born. And then we see, of course, fashion, which is what, 85% women. I think more the diversity issue doesn’t exist to a terrible level from about a director down, where it becomes a problem is when you get higher to that glass ceiling. That’s where you start to see push and change. But you know, most of the companies are embracing it quite well. They see the problem and they’re making moves. I’m hopeful on that.

Melinda: Right. So, if you were going to give three pieces of advice about how to make your company or retail brand more attractive to the best staff from the frontline all the way up to that director level, what would that advice be?

Suzanne: Well, first of all, you can no longer rely on image. For example, Apple. Apple has such a big image. People want to work for them. Now, you have to actually mean something. You have to have a vision as a company, and you have to relay that vision down to where the people are. And sticking an ad on Indeed is not where they are. You know, you need a social media presence. You need TikTok. You need Instagram. You need all of those factors to have an identity, an identity that resonates with the staff, right? I mean, you can take a classic brand like Roots. Twenty years ago, everybody was keen to have Roots and it stood for Canadiana and going to Muskoka, etc., and what is Roots now? There’s no message. There’s no brand to attach yourself to. So, that’s the thing. The first thing they have to do is create a culture that means something, stands for something. Lululemon, look, who’s done it brilliantly. They have their lifestyle. They preach what they practice. They practice what they preach. So, you have to create an environment that brings people toward you. I will tell you this, that recruiting and staffing out is a marketing sales job. They really should take it out of HR altogether. HR was created to administer people, paper, functions. It was never created to be a talent.

And then the secondary thing that retailers can do is separate the two. Recruiting is a marketing job. Talent development is marketing. Put their budget into marketing and let HR do what they do best, but they’re not salespeople. That’s not their function. So, that’s two things.

And I think third, overall, is bring the fun back. It’s been so focused on, you know, whatever platform you’re going to create, you’ve got to bring the fun back into retail. Retailers, in general, are gregarious people. They love working with the clients and the products and going to work is fun for them. But the fun’s been sucked out of it by COVID. So, how can you create the fun? Because right now, going back to retail looks like one of the riskiest things you can do, right?

Melinda: Yeah.

Suzanne: So, it needs to have a whole public relations campaign. And please, people, stop asking your top salespeople to come in and do an hour of cleaning before their shift because there’s nothing wrong with cleaning, but it is the most demoralizing thing in the world to take talented professional people and ask them to spend their time cleaning. Hire a company to do your cleaning.

Melinda: Yeah. That is a great point because I have heard that from people who worked in the sector that, you know, “Now I’m spending more of my time doing this than I’m doing the thing that I love.”

Suzanne: Right. Yeah. You’re not doing retail here. You become a cleaning and security guard.

Melinda: Great. Well, if someone needs to get in touch with you in their journey to finding those perfect people for their stores, where would they get in contact with you, Suzanne?

Suzanne: It’s pretty easy just to jump on the internet,, Best Retail Careers. Or send me a message through LinkedIn, either way through Best Retail Careers or my private page, Suzanne. I’m getting so many connections. I’ll be cut off soon. So, people are going to have to ask me to join them.

Melinda: Great. Thank you. And we will also include that in the transcript on our website so people can connect with you.

Suzanne: Well, that was fun.

Melinda: Great. Thank you so much.

Suzanne: All right. Talk again soon. Bye.

Melinda: Some tough love from Suzanne. Employee-first thinking is something retailers need to embrace quickly and holistically. And this connects directly to the need for managers who have empathy and people skills. Bridging the gap between employees’ needs and expectations and how retailers have typically engaged with staff is going to be of critical importance as the pandemic recedes. And as Suzanne points out, that gap is pretty big right now.

So, don’t wait for legislation to force you to make retail jobs not just more humane, but fun jobs that people really want. As we get back into store, service excellence is going to be something consumers are looking for, and if you can’t find those rights fits, Suzanne can help. And if you’re looking to rethink employee engagement and your service design, that’s something we can do at SLD. So, reach out to us anytime. Thanks for listening.


Suzanne Sears is the president of Best Retail Careers. She is also an editorial contributor at Retail Insider.

Think Retail is a podcast where top designers, strategists, thought leaders and business people discuss what’s coming next. For more information, email