Shop Talk: Practical answers for tough business questions

by : 
Kim Perkins
September 1, 2012

Question: Last holiday season was our first, and we had no idea what to expect. We were fine up until the last week, and then it was absolutely nuts! In truth, I’m dreading doing this again and would like to look forward to Christmastime and great sales. Last year, we ran low on product, but mostly we lacked enough staff to serve our customers, and many waited in long lines to check out or get assistance. So, this year we’ve ordered a lot more inventory (if we had six of an item and it sold out before December 15, I ordered 12 or even 18). I feel confident about the inventory, but have questions about hiring staff. How do I know how many people to hire? When should I have them start? Is there a way to figure this out, or do I just guess?

Answer: Hiring for the holidays is not an exact science, but I’ll share with you some of the ways that have worked for us in my store. Ideally, you want a new employee to have time to be trained and get comfortable with your merchandise, computer or cash register, and store procedures before the holiday rush. We try to bring in holiday help by mid-November, before things get too busy, so they have time to absorb and learn, and we have time to train. That timing seems to work best.

As for how many people to hire, first figure out if you will have extended holiday hours, when that will start, and how many people you’ll need on the sales floor at one time. For example, if you plan to be open 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 6 p.m. on Sunday from December 10 to 24, you have 72 total hours per week to cover (11 hours per day times six days, plus six hours on Sunday). If you would like to have three people available at all times to assist customers, that’s 216 hours per week you need to schedule. I also add a few more hours (about two per day for opening, closing, and overlapping lunch coverage), bringing the total to 230 hours per week. If you divide 230 by 40 hours, you will need 5.75, or six full-time salespeople, or a combination of full- and part-time help equaling 230 hours a week for those last two weeks, to have the floor coverage you desire.

That may sound like a lot of people, but if you hire employees with flexible schedules, you can adjust the hours for your busiest times. When they first start in mid- to late November, you can keep the hours to a minimum—just enough to train. And you can adjust the schedule to fit your store traffic during those last two busiest weeks. Perhaps you don’t need three salespeople right at 10 a.m. except for the last few days. Maybe you’d be fine with two people until noon and two people from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. That would cut a few hours. Or you could decide to close by 7:30 p.m. or 8 p.m., depending on your community.

Remember, during the busy holiday season, everything is busier. There are more phone calls to answer, more gifts to wrap (if you provide gift wrapping services), and more receiving to be done. If you plan for these things and take care of your regular staff by hiring enough help so they don’t burn out, the holidays can be a fun, enjoyable, and prosperous time!

Know, too, that each year this process gets easier. If you’re lucky, as we have been, temporary holiday employees return year after year, and they require minimal training due to past experience. Some are past employees who want a few extra hours at the holidays, or teachers and students who are on school break, as well as applicants who reach you through advertising in store, in print, and online.

Kim Perkins is co-owner of Elysian Fields Books & Gifts for Conscious Living (, an award-winning store in Sarasota, Fla. Send your retail questions to