How to Find Qualified Candidates in Retail

Have you ever tried to find candidates for a retail job only to come up empty handed? You have plenty of applicants, but none come close to what you are looking for. Meanwhile managers are breathing down your neck and do not understand why you have not found qualified candidates. There are plenty of people looking for work. Surely it shouldn’t be that hard, right?

The truth is that there may be many people looking for jobs, but they may not always fit the qualifications. Not every retail job is entry level, and some require a specific skill set or experience. In today’s post, we will look at how to approach the problem of not finding enough qualified candidates for retail jobs.

Review Job Descriptions

Sometimes job descriptions can be so specific that they exclude most candidates and may discourage candidates from applying. Keep your required qualifications list to the most necessary things and put skills and experience desired in a separate section on the job description.

First, think of the qualifications a candidate must have. For example, if you are hiring a cashier for a grocery store, you need someone with good customer service skills. You would not want to eliminate this qualification from the required qualifications section of the job description.

Next, make a list of the qualifications your ideal candidate would have. These are qualifications that are not required but would make for your dream candidate. Going back to the grocery store cashier example, you may want someone with previous experience and knowledge of cashiering in grocery. If someone does not have this, you could easily train them on how to use the register, process returns, ring up produce and any other cashiering skills necessary to the job. It would be nice to have a new hire who knows how to use a register, but it is not necessary. Put something like this in the skills desired section of the job description.

The key is to avoid a job description that excludes many candidates that lack skills they could easily learn with some training during their first couple weeks of employment.

Know the Job Market

At my last HR job for a grocery chain, our most challenging position to hire for was cook. We would get applications, but many people had little to no kitchen experience. We needed someone who could hit the ground running and did not need training in kitchen basics, knife handling and how to read a recipe. Even after posting on a variety sites, including with culinary schools, we would come up with maybe one qualified candidate—if we were lucky.

This led me to do a search for other cook positions in the area. It turned out there were a lot of places hiring for similar positions. I also started noticing a lot of restaurants with help wanted signs advertising cook positions. It turns out we were not the only ones desperately looking for cooks. This could explain why we were struggling to get applications from cook candidates. There were more openings than candidates looking.

It is important to do research to understand the job market. Understanding this can help you better formulate a plan to find qualified candidates. In a case like this, that could mean looking for qualified people internally.

Create Qualified Candidates Internally

If you can’t find qualified candidates, then create qualified candidates. Set up training programs and learning opportunities that will develop your current employees. This has the added benefit of giving employees the opportunity for growth and challenge within your company—something that can help reduce turnover and improve morale.

Start by identifying employees who have the potential to grow with your company. For example, when it comes to finding cooks, look at your other food service workers. Is there someone currently making sandwiches in the deli who would like to learn more and become a cook?

Developing a training program with the goal of promoting employees into more skilled positions could include in-house training programs or paying for employees to attend classes. An in-house training program includes things like one-on-one training and job shadowing. You can also invite employees to management training sessions or computer classes. Even if these skills are not relevant to their current job, they may learn skills that could make them qualified for other positions later on—possibly those hard-to-fill positions.

In the End…

When finding qualified candidates seems impossible, review job descriptions, research the job market and, most importantly, look to your current workforce. Developing your workforce not only creates qualified candidates for hard-to-fill positions, but it also gives opportunities for growth to your long-term employees.

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Stephanie Hammerwold

Stephanie Hammerwold, is the founder and director of Pacific Reentry Career Services, a Southern California nonprofit that helps formerly incarcerated women find and maintain employment. She also blogs on a variety of HR topics as the HR Hammer. When not volunteering for her nonprofit, Stephanie has a day job in HR at a tech startup in Irvine, CA.

Reader Interactions


  1. Competency Toolkit says

    Great article Stephanie. We’ve likewise seen many organizations with complex job descriptions limiting them from anything other than the mythical ideal candidate. Your breakout of must-have (e.g., customer service) versus nice-to-have (e.g., cashiering) is right on point. Our experience shows that by properly segmenting these competencies (skills, knowledge, abilities, traits, etc.), organizations will often find it easier to identify candidates with strong cross-functional competencies (e.g., customer service, communication, leadership) and train them in technical competencies (e.g., cashiering, tax accounting C++ programming) than the other way around. As you point out, succession planning is very critical as well, especially for hard to find positions. Through using these same set of competencies, organizations can identify next-in-line candidates (whether within the same group as the open position or somewhere else in the organization) and provide training according to competency gaps.

    • Stephanie Hammerwold says

      Thanks for your comment. When we start looking beyond simply posting an ad and waiting for candidates, I think it starts to become easy to see that there are a lot of qualified candidates out there. It may require some extra training, but ultimately the investment in training time will pay off.


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