September 27, 2009
Retail safety net shrinks: Onslaught of applicants face fewer job openings
Don’t count on a job selling sweaters at your favorite department store. Retail jobs from sales associates to managers are harder to find as merchants close stores, lay off thousands of workers -- or go out of business completely.
Whenever a retailer does hire employees, it’s usually inundated by people hoping for a job. J.C. Penney Co. received 15,000 applications, more than double what it expected, for 500 positions at its new Manhattan store. SnagAJob.com said 160,596 applicants applied for jobs at one national department store chain in July, more than double the number of a year ago.
The overflow of resumes, particularly from people laid off in fields such as construction and finance, gives merchants their pick of the best workers but also presents a challenge for people who want to get started in retail or get back into the business. Some do find that with extra effort it’s possible to get a job that, if not ideal, at least gets them inside the door.
Darren Gray, 44, who had 13 years of banking experience including managerial stints, learned that recently when he applied to work at the new Penney’s.
Tips for landing a retail job
Focus on financially healthy chains. Pursue job opportunities at supermarkets and discounters that have benefited from shoppers who are buying only the necessities.
Look for jobs at stores where you regularly shop and that you’re passionate about. That enthusiasm and knowledge of the products will come through in interviews.
Meet the managers. Don’t just drop off your resume, but try to meet the store managers to stand out from the crowd of applications.
Be flexible. Working in retailing can mean grueling work schedules, particularly when it comes to the holiday season.
Play up your experience in customer service. Emphasize your experience, even if it’s an unrelated field such as banking or hospitality.
After the financial crisis erupted last fall, the Jersey City, N.J., resident decided to leave finance and return to retailing, where he worked for six years after college. When Gray applied to Penney’s, all the management positions were taken, so he accepted a job as a commission-based jewelry sales associate, which meant up to a 50 percent pay cut.
He remains upbeat about his career prospects. “There’s definitely opportunity for advancement,” says Gray, who aims to be part of Penney’s top management. “Sometimes you have to take short-term sacrifices for a long-term gain.”
The dearth of retail openings is particularly disheartening because in past recessions, the industry served as a safety net for the unemployed. That net isn’t there now, as the most dramatic plunge in consumer spending in decades has led to a rash of liquidations of major chains from Circuit City Stores to Linens ’N Things. And other companies have been shutting stores around the country and laying off managers.
“This recession is all about the consumer, and spending dropped off because consumers are tapped out,” says John Challenger, chief executive of Challenger Gray & Christmas, a consulting firm.
The retail industry, which employs about 11.2 percent of all U.S. workers, has lost 843,100 positions since the recession began in late 2007, Challenger says. That shrinking landscape has meant there’s one retail job for every four applicants, compared with one job for every two applicants three years ago, he notes.
There are ways to make your resume stand out. Applicants who are on an executive management track should pad their resume with short-term jobs even if they don’t pay, according to Chris Higgins, senior associate director of MBA recruitment at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.
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