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Fashion’s Biggest Gen-Z Hiring Challenge

Retailers will need to get creative to attract young talent to ring up sales and stock shelves at stores this holiday season.
As fashion retailers prepare for the upcoming holiday season concerns about hiring and retaining entry-level employees are reaching a fever pitch.
As fashion retailers prepare for the upcoming holiday season concerns about hiring and retaining entry-level employees are reaching a fever pitch. (Shutterstock)

Key insights

  • Fashion’s efforts to woo young talent have focused primarily on corporate jobs where remote work, wellness initiatives and higher salaries have proved helpful.
  • Retail jobs, too, must evolve to offer greater financial stability and more creative and engaging responsibilities.
  • Good store managers, upskilling opportunities, and a clear brand mission are big draws to Gen-Z.

Knix, the direct-to-consumer intimates brand, has no problem attracting young employees to design its leak-proof underwear or dream up its next social media campaign. Nearly 60 percent of its workforce is under the age of 30.

Finding staff for its growing network of stores, however, is another story.

“Almost every store that we’ve opened, we have had a lot of challenges building the initial team,” said Joanna Griffiths, the brand’s founder and president. (Knix has opened seven stores in the US and Canada in the last three years.)

Griffiths said Knix’s “hyper clear mission and purpose” helps attract employees of all ages to its corporate jobs, but has been especially helpful in bringing in idealistic Gen-Zers. The mission helps differentiate Knix when hiring on the retail side too, but the competition is much stiffer: when the company was staffing up for the opening of its Santa Monica, California location last year, there were 14,000 other open retail positions in a five-mile radius, she said.

In August, there were still 1.7 job openings for every unemployed person in the US, according to the US Bureau of Labour Statistics. About 4.2 million people quit their jobs that month — putting the quit rate only slightly below the record highs seen at the end of 2021.

Post-pandemic, workers at all levels and in all age groups have new and heightened expectations of their employers on everything from compensation to work-life balance. But, by and large, it’s Gen-Z that is giving the fashion industry the most grief when it comes to hiring and retention. The challenge is most pronounced in stores where the needs are greatest and the work is less appealing, experts say.

Fashion firms will need to act quickly to revamp retail jobs so they offer greater financial stability and more rewarding responsibilities. Higher wages, consistent and more predictable scheduling alongside creative tasks like livestreaming and social media posting could help store employees feel more fulfilled in their work, experts say.

As fashion retailers prepare for the upcoming holiday season — when retail sales will reach between $1.45 to $1.47 trillion, per Deloitte — concerns about hiring and retaining entry-level employees (many of whom are Gen-Z) are reaching a fever pitch.

“If you’re not able to create an exceptional customer experience — and the customer experiences are absolutely enabled by your sales associates — you’re going to lose out on opportunities,” said Aaron Sorensen, partner at Lotis Blue Consulting and head of the firm’s business transformation practice.

Employers’ Blind Spot

Much of the efforts in hiring and retaining fashion’s young talent has focused on corporate jobs, where companies have used remote work, mental wellness initiatives and higher starting salaries to attract talent. Those measures — and looming recession fears — are beginning to boost stickiness among some early career professionals, said Sorensen.

Retailers have offered fewer incentives to store workers, though many have raised minimum pay.

“These jobs that feel disconnected from a larger purpose and are low pay [making] people [ask] ‘Is this really what I want to do?’” said Jessica Kriegel, chief scientist of workplace culture at workplace consultancy, Culture Partners.

A Store (Worker) Makeover

Despite their reputation for higher quit rates, Gen-Z is “very pragmatic and they crave stability and trust from their employer,” said Cristina Baruzzi, partner at executive search firm Sterling International’s Milan office.

Understaffed teams and a lack of “team stability” have an outsized impact on employee morale and on customers, she said.

Gen-Z also brings a “creative approach to stores that’s … in line with younger client’s shopping [needs],” added Baruzzi.

Enlisting social media savvy Gen-Zers for livestreaming and social media posts for stores can benefit both employees — who crave interesting work — and lure in younger shoppers who are more likely to find fashion inspiration from social media than other channels, according to BoF’s latest Insights Report, Gen-Z and Fashion in the Age of Realism.

A fully staffed store with at least some younger talent who can speak their language is also critical because Gen-Z is more likely to find fashion in-store than on brands’ sites, BoF’s Insight report found. Specifically, 69 percent of Gen-Zers surveyed by BoF’s Insights team listed social media among the top three places they find fashion inspiration, 39 percent placed stores in their top three, just above the 36 percent that place brand’s websites in their top three places to find fashion inspiration.

At Knix stores, the company found that once it managed to hire its “initial store teams,” it’s managers that have the biggest impact on whether employees of all ages stay or go.

“When there’s a good store manager in place… and people feel like they’re being respected and they like the product, they stay,” she said.

Good managers “identify potential” in junior talent and can tap enthusiastic store workers for training opportunities that get them excited about sticking around, said Sorensen.

For instance, a seasonal associate whose primary role is stocking shelves could be offered an opportunity to take on a few tasks in clienteling or “organic social media posts,” part of their time, he said.

A clearly communicated company culture, brand identity and core values — age and body inclusivity as well as women’s empowerment, in Knix’s case — could be key to making store roles — that, for now, still include menial tasks like ringing up sales and stocking shelves — attractive for the long-term, Kriegel said.

“There’s no grunt work when people are working for a purpose or working towards goals,” she said.

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