The fashion industry is gearing up for the mother of all hiring binges.

Retailers big and small are staffing up fast in anticipation of a shopping surge this summer as more people are vaccinated and restrictions on indoor activities significantly lift. In March, clothing and accessories retailers added 16,000 jobs, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, a hiring pace more typically seen around the holiday shopping season. And that only counts roles in physical stores; retailers are also hiring thousands of workers to handle online orders in warehouses, customer service representatives and even sanitation specialists, according to Mark Matthews, vice president of research development and industry analysis at the National Retail Federation.

As of April 19, Sephora listed around 1,100 “retail jobs” openings on its careers site, including loss prevention investigators and beauty advisors. Gap Inc. listed upwards of 3,600 unfilled jobs across its brands — Gap, Banana Republic, Athleta and Old Navy — including dozens of store managers. Careers platform Indeed noted a 15 percent increase in retail job listings compared to its pre-pandemic baseline of Feb. 1.

Often, retailers are hiring back employees laid off during last year’s lockdowns, gambling that stores will remain open for good this time and that consumers are ready to spend again. It’s looking like a safe bet: retail sales surged 9.8 percent last month, the largest increase since May 2020, with clothing and sporting goods driving gains, according to the US Commerce Department.

But in many instances, the jobs have changed over the last year. Consumers are less likely to shop solely in stores or online, and employees need different skills to cater to those customers. At many stores, the perfect sales associate in 2021 might bear only a passing resemblance to the same role in 2019.

Below, BoF explores how four companies are staffing up for a post-pandemic retail era.

Leveraging the Athleisure Boom

The importance of agility in a post-Covid-19 workforce is a sentiment not lost on Daniel Shapiro, who founded Fourlaps Athletic Apparel in 2016 and, until last year, ran the men’s performance apparel start-up with the help of just one employee.

The brand, which started out with a direct-to-consumer business model, has been slowly making the transition to wholesale — getting its first lift when it inked a partnership with Peloton for an exclusive apparel collection in 2019. Now, it counts Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom and Paragon Sports among its wholesale partners.

During the pandemic, spending on athletic gear surged. Shapiro added four employees with roles spanning marketing, wholesale and supply chain. He saw the hires as a combination of meeting the pandemic-induced rise in spending on athletic items and insurance against an uncertain future.

Shapiro said he hired a salesperson specifically focused on navigating “wholesale in a world where we aren’t going to trade shows anymore.”

“I looked for someone who understood the men’s space and had good relationships with small specialty stores as well as larger, higher end department stores,” he said, adding that he found the wholesale salesperson through networking with business contacts.

I looked for someone who understood the men’s space and had good relationships with small specialty stores as well as larger, higher end department stores.

Shapiro also picked up a consultant to advise on production and supply chain, which have become critical needs as the brand prepares to enter the women’s category. (Recent backlogs at ports on the West Coast and last month’s ship blockage in the Suez Canal have also created new supply chain hurdles.) For that role, he says he chose “someone with deep production experience,” whom he recruited through a production agent.

Recasting the Store Associate

Macy’s Inc. is hiring more than 11,000 “store colleagues,” with the majority of roles in its customer sales and experience team, as well as within traditional categories such as merchandising and operations.

The department store said in February 2020 it would close 125 underperforming locations by 2023. It’s hiring employees who can help with the company’s goal of creating an easier shopping experience across online, desktop, mobile and brick-and-mortar stores.

Macy’s said positions in its store operations teams include “fulfilment colleagues” who support its “convenient, omnichannel shopping experience” by picking and packing up contact-free curbside pickup and same-day delivery orders.

A posting on Macys.com for a retail sales associate position in Paramus, NJ, for example, says the employee must “assist customers in all aspects of total store fulfilment” and “satisfy the needs of our digital and physical customers by making appropriate partnerships when necessary.”

Flexibility in Focus

At the height of the pandemic, the sustainable jewellery brand Pyrrha was forced to close its Los Angeles store to comply with lockdowns. The company laid off two part-time sales associates, but retained the store manager, said Danielle Papin, who co-founded Vancouver-based sustainable jewellery brand Pyrrha with her husband Wade Papin.

The manager picked up tasks like research for the brand, which produces handcrafted talisman necklaces and bracelets from recycled metals. As government restrictions eased, Papin said the store manager started returning to the boutique for appointments with customers, before eventually opening up full-time.

As the weather warms up and more people get vaccinated, Papin says she’s seeing things get busier in LA: “so our plan is to slowly move back to being open seven days a week.” To do that, the brand will also need to hire two part time sales associates. For now, Pyrrha plans to bring back the two workers it relieved last year but, if they’re unavailable, Papin will advertise for the role on LinkedIn and local job sites.

Although Pyrrha’s store manager is back to much of her traditional tasks these days — opening and closing up shop and outfitting jewellery displays — Papin says the pandemic has bumped one characteristic, in particular, to the top of the brand’s list of desirable employee attributes.

“Flexibility is so important to us right now; flexibility saves jobs,” Papin said, adding that on slow traffic days, her store manager continues to dabble in research and other projects.

Flexibility is so important to us right now; flexibility saves jobs.

Preparing for a Virtual Future

Liveops Inc., a 20-year-old company that provides virtual customer service agents to retailers, logged a 79 percent increase in its workforce since March 2020.

Retailers, including department stores as well as fashion and athletic brands, tap Liveops to find people whose main job experience is in customer service. After recruiting those people — who are employed on a contract basis — Liveops collaborates with the retailer to train them on any brand-specific nuances of the job. Once onboarded, “customer care specialists,” work from a virtual call centre to advise shoppers on things like product sizing, shipping and returns.

The role became more sales-oriented during the pandemic, said chief executive Greg Hanover. Nowadays, about 40 percent of Liveops customer interactions end in a sales transaction.

“In the past, [companies viewed] customer care as an expense line but … now it’s seen more as a profit centre and a revenue generator,” he said.

In the past, [companies viewed] customer care as an expense line but … now it’s seen more as a profit center and a revenue generator.

Some 60 percent of the roles added since the pandemic started were filled by former retail sales associates, many of whom were laid off from in-store roles. Many of the company’s newest clients are relying on virtual customer service representatives while stores are closed or seeing reduced traffic.

“[More than ever] the right talent for that virtual customer care specialist is someone who is experienced in more than just taking care of customer issues, [this person] is also working to turn [every interaction] into a sales opportunity,” Hanover said.

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