In early January, Big Dog Convenience lost one of its best employees who had worked as an evening cashier. “She got an offer for an office job getting paid more than we can even pay our managers and a four-figure signing bonus,” says Ramona Roberts, owner and operator of the five-location chain in P.E.I. “When it comes to cashiers, giving them signing bonuses in the thousands of dollars is tough, financially, to do. However, that is the level at which we’re competing for workers even in a small market like ours.”
Roberts, who has had to cover shifts she normally wouldn’t amid the staffing shortage, concludes, “The competition for people is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.”
Coast to coast, good help is in short supply amid the economy having opened back up and falling unemployment.
According to Statistics Canada’s Job Vacancy and Wage Survey, the number of job vacancies in Canada reached an all-time high of 912,600 in the third quarter of 2021, 62.1% higher than the same quarter two years earlier. Five sectors accounted for two-thirds (67.6%) of the increase—food service and retail trade, among them.
Meanwhile, the job vacancy rate—the proportion of all jobs unfilled—was 5.4%, also a record high.
Many c-store operators report being short-staffed because of the labour squeeze. And they’ve also gone through periods of reduced headcount as Omicron, the highly transmissible COVID-19 variant, sidelined staff. Media reports even surfaced of grocery stores in urban centres being forced to close for a day or more because of a lack of able employees.
In the early days of Omicron Little Short Stop Stores, which has 30 locations across Cambridge, Guelph, Kitchener and Waterloo in southwestern Ontario, “had two stores with a positive case,” recalls Robbie Mulder, district manager of the family-run chain. “That might not sound like a lot but when that happens it knocks five or six other employees out because they crossed shifts with that individual, and all had to isolate.”
Fortunately, she says, “we were able to take care of those stores in the interim with employees from other locations and, being a family-run business, we had members of our families step up and come in and help, too.”
Parkland saw On the Run/Marché Express franchisees, who typically own more than one location, share staff because of Omicron infections. “We saw stores who are not part of the same team work together and share resources to make sure places could stay open,” says Alison Manning, VP, people and culture, Canada, for Parkland, which has about 2,000 c-store and retail gas locations nationwide.
Single-store independents have also faced challenges. Ure’s Country Kitchen in Harrow, Ont. has a c-store, restaurant and mini golf course all part of its operations, and every time government restrictions forced the closure of indoor dining, it was forced to lay off staff. “We’ve been very lucky because after the first round of layoffs all of our staff, except for one who had found another job, returned,” says Laurie Ure, co-owner, with her husband Randy, of Ure’s Country Kitchen.
It’s clear the ability for the c-store industry to attract and retain employees has become mission critical. Here’s our guide to how convenience and gas retailers are navigating the challenges of today’s labour market.
Competing for talent
6 ways to become a place where people want to work
It seems every service-based establishment needs more staff, and there aren’t enough job seekers to meet the demand. Here are how c-stores can compete and strategies for them to improve their employer brand.
Do so not just to stay competitive but to recognize the job description has changed. Cashiers need to be IT-savvy to handle current payment and virtual order systems, while also having to control crowds and enforce mask-wearing. “It is not a low-skill position anymore,” says Ramona Roberts, owner and operator of Big Dog Convenience. “They have to be numerate and literate, and the ask on them is ever-increasing. They should be compensated for that with a starting salary above minimum wage.”
While it may be cost-prohibitive for c-stores to offer a signing or referral bonus, they can give other incentives. Think an employee discount on products, or offering staff a stipend, like $100 per month, towards in-store purchases. “These things don’t cost a lot, but can go a long way to attracting and retaining talent,” says Lisa Hutcheson, a retail consultant at J.C. Williams Group. “And stores should be upfront about the incentives they offer in their recruiting practices.”
Job seekers, especially youth and young adults, like to work at places with buzz and that they’d be happy to tell their friends about. If you have a social media presence, “tout yourself as a great employer,” says Hutcheson. “Talk about your store and what is fun and cool about it. C-stores haven’t traditionally been thought of as exciting places to work, but I am seeing more independent stores with unique features, and they should highlight them.”
It can be difficult to build a sense of community and rapport between store-level staff when they might only see each other while passing between shifts. Use social media. 7-Eleven Canada has an “internal Facebook page that allows employees to share stories, best practices and make other comments,” says vice-president and general manager Norman Hower. “We also seek to engage them to share feedback on what’s working and have them ask questions of our senior leadership team through this platform.”
A group of employees and managers at Little Short Stop Stores, meanwhile, have a group chat on WhatsApp. “Everyone gets a message delivered at the same time, which would have been unheard of for us to do in the past. It has proven really beneficial for team communication,” says Robbie Mulder, district manager for Little Short Stop Stores.
Open the lines of communication, and you’ll find staff have great ideas to improve the employee or customer experience. But just don’t listen, also act on the suggestions you can. “It makes them feel part of the team when you involve everyone in problem-solving,” says Laurie Ure, co-owner and manager of Ure’s Country Kitchen.
“The key to retaining staff is treating them with respect and letting them contribute.” Alison Manning, VP, people and culture, Canada, for Parkland, says, “Our retailers provide staff with development opportunities, such as by creating different tiers of employment, so staff can see a pathway to moving up, including even to supervisor.”
When Laurie Ure and her husband Randy decided to take a vacation from work for the first time at the end of last year, they asked one of their young employees who had been with them for three-and-a-half years if she would like to help manage the store. She jumped at the opportunity, as she “wants to be a Canadian Border Services officer and this would be a great example if she were to be asked in an interview of a time when she stepped up and took on extra responsibility.” Ure gave this staffer a $1 per hour raise, on top of one she had already earned in the summer, for taking on the extra responsibility.
This series originally appeared in the March/April 2022 People Issue of Convenience Store News Canada. To get first access to the latest news, information and resources, sign up to have the magazine delivered directly to your mailbox or your in-box six times a year.