Surge in part-timers at Christmas

PHOTO: Surge in part-timers at Christmas

When you hit the shops or eat out this festive season, brace yourself for service from a flood of part-timers, who may be inexperienced.

Some stores are hiring up to 30 per cent more staff for the period given that many customers throng their stores during the holidays.

The part-timers - mainly students, housewives and retirees - are paid an hourly rate of between $6 and $12. They perform duties such as wrapping gifts, waiting tables and manning payment counters.

Out of 17 retailers and F&B outlets that SundayLife! contacted, 16 say that they rely mainly on part-timers to cope with the busy weeks leading up to Christmas.

Hired from walk-in interviews, through job advertisements and recruitment agencies, part-time staff undergo training that lasts anywhere from a few hours to three days.

Sending out this army of part-timers to the frontline of sales and service is not without drawbacks.

While full-time staff keep a watchful eye on new part-time service crew at the four outlets of the patisserie Canele, mistakes do occur at times, admits assistant group manager Rachel Aw. For instance, parttimers might not be sure of Christmas promotions or might give customers wrong information about products.

Ms Aw, 28, says: "They are told to check with full-timers when they face such situations."

Each Canele outlet has about six to seven staff daily, with at least two additional part-timers a day during the festive season. Sales in December are normally about 50 per cent higher then usual.

The influx of new and sometimes inexperienced faces, occasionally fazes housewife Tang Yun Wei, who visits department stores such as Tangs and Isetan for her Christmas shopping each November.

Says the 45-year-old: "Some service staff may be quite slow, which is frustrating after a long wait in line."

If stores are not able to get enough help, she says, she might start her yearly Christmas shopping up to a month early. "I suppose this staffing crunch is the reality - I just have to find ways to get around it."

Some places are tapping into technology - such as self-check-out counters, electronic shelf-labelling systems and wireless credit card billing - to ease the crunch.

Ikea, which has two branches and about 400 staff here, is hiring just 3 to 5 per cent more part-timers, says regional customer relations manager Wendy Poh, 41.

The furniture store is testing self-serve check-out counters at the Alexandra branch, so customers can pay for items on their own to shorten waiting time, she adds.

But for most retail and F&B companies, there is still a heavy reliance on manpower because certain tasks, such as gift wrapping, cannot be automated.

Supermarket chain NTUC FairPrice, which has more than 270 stores islandwide, and Dairy Farm, which runs the Cold Storage, Jasons, Marketplace and Giant supermarkets, hires 10 per cent more staff each festive season. Each has about 10,000 employees.

Department stores Tangs Orchard and Isetan hire part-timers to increase their manpower count by about 25 and 30 per cent respectively in the weeks leading up to Christmas. During non-festive months, Tangs Orchard usually has about 400 sales staff, while Isetan has about 550 sales staff.

This jump is not unusual for the festive period, according to Mr Josh Goh, 39, assistant director of corporate services at recruitment company The GMP Group.

He says: "With the tightening of foreign workers quota and difficulties in employing full-timers, retail and F&B employers are already using more part-time staff throughout the year. This demand increases by about 30 per cent during the festive season."

Some stores and restaurants, such as home-furnishing chain Francfranc, the two French restaurants Bistro Du Vin, bookstore chain Kinokuniya and the restaurants managed by Resorts World Sentosa, approach schools to hire interns and part-timers.

Given the hassle with mass recruitment as the year closes, it makes sense for business to build a pool of regular part-timers.

For Orchard Hotel and Royal Plaza on Scotts, these are based on word-of-mouth, with managers informally contacting people who had previously worked with them.

Further, workers can also be redeployed where more hands are needed, says Mr Riaz Mahmood, 50, general manager of Orchard Hotel Singapore. For example, workers have been sent from the bar or room service to wait tables at the cafe.

But fresh faces still make up the bulk of part-timers at stores such as Tangs Orchard.

One of them is secondary school student Muhamad Haziq Mohamed, 16, who is working at the Trim Shoppe at Tangs Orchard which sells trees, trimming and hampers.

He started work last Monday and has already had to deal with a disgruntled customer when he could not find a box for a photo frame. His supervisor had to step in to deal with the situation.

Muhamad Haziq says: "It does get stressful. I have to learn how to deal with the non-stop stream of customers."

Manpower or tech power

PART-TIMERS

  • Mainly students on school vacation, housewives, retirees and people who are between jobs
  • They are recruited via job advertisements, walk-in interviews, job fairs, recruitment agencies and internships
  • Duties include wrapping gifts, waiting tables and manning the cash counters
  • Tangs department store, for example, maintains the ratio of part-time staff to permanent employees at 2:1
  • Home furnishing chain Francfranc has a buddy system, in which a part-timer is paired with a section leader, usually a senior sales adviser so that he can help to train the new staff
  • Eases the workload of existing staff in the busy festive period, but their lack of experience can result in mistakes

TECH SOLUTIONS

  • 12 NTUC FairPrice Stores with self-check-out points, while Ikea Alexandra is now starting to test self-serve check-out counters
  • Electronic shelf-labelling systems at about 100 NTUC FairPrice stores instead of paper tags; prices are downloaded from a central pricing system
  • Four wireless credit card machines at Royal Plaza on Scotts' restaurant Carousel; saves time as service staff need not walk to and from wired terminals; provided free by a bank and installed in the first quarter of this year
  • Automated cutlery sorter at the central dishwashing area in Resorts World Sentosa, which manages more than 10 F&B outlets. The machine polishes, sorts and counts cutlery. It was installed in 2011
  • Money invested in the technology leads to more cost-effective operations in the long run; the systems can also be used throughout the year. However, lacks the human touch that can make a difference to shoppers during the festive season


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