Heather Barksdale, manager of the Build-a-Bear Workshop at Tysons Corner, stations her friendliest employees at the front of the store to greet customers. Her shoppers are pleased, but there's a huge drawback: It's easier for visiting store managers to sneak in and lure her cheery workers away.
"I've caught them before," Barksdale said of her competitors. "I just kind of get in the middle of the conversation and say, 'HI. CAN I HELP YOU?' "
Never before have retailers been so desperate for employees. And with the holiday shopping season fast approaching, they are doing whatever it takes to bring people in. They are raiding one another's workers, bumping up recruiting drives and looking for alternative ways to attract job prospects.
But as the economy continues to grow and suburban jobless rates remain at record low levels, seasonal employees have become such rare finds that retailers warn that this holiday season promises to be the most difficult ever.
"It's happening everywhere," said Louis Reid, manager of the Harry and David gourmet food and gift store at the Leesburg Corner Premium Outlets. "We're all in the same boat, and we all have to figure it out."
Analysts say the shortage may trim sales somewhat, but not enough to notice. "Because business is so good, I don't think retailers will lose," said Kenneth M. Gassman Jr., a retail analyst with Davenport & Co. in Richmond. "But things could be better."
Clearly, customers' patience is waning, however. Most shoppers say they pity overworked store employees. Nevertheless, they have grown tired of long lines and poor service--so much so that Internet and catalogue shopping sprees look more appealing that ever before.
"Holiday shopping has become more of a burden than a family event," said William Henry Hunt Jr., a Leesburg resident on a recent shopping trip at the Leesburg Corner Premium Outlets center.
In the Washington area, Loudoun and Fairfax counties have been especially hard hit because their jobless rates have remained below 2 percent for more than a year. At the same time, both counties are experiencing a surge in new stores and shopping centers.
At the Leesburg shopping center, which opened last year, many stores have never managed to hire a full staff. To make matters worse, the new regional mall, Dulles Town Center, strained an already overtapped job market. And the expansion is far from over. An additional 20 retailers are expected to open in the Leesburg Corner outlets before this Christmas.
Sensing their tenants' frustrations, area malls have been hosting job fairs. The problem is, the fairs seem to draw more retailers than job applicants.
"I got no applications," said Vitamin World store manager Beth Pearson, describing a recent job fair at the Loudoun outlet center. "And I wasn't the only one."
"I get calls constantly from retailers," said Rhod Wood, who heads Loudoun County High School's cooperative marketing program, in which students seek jobs in the local community. "They are opening these outlets and they're not familiar with the market. What they're up against just smacks them in the face."
In Loudoun County, where the unemployment rate stood at 1.3 percent in August, some retailers that offer $8 to $10 an hour for entry-level positions still can't find anyone.
"It just shows you that money isn't everything," Wood said. "If they're not here, they're not here, and I don't care what you're doing."
Employees aren't complaining, however.
Matthew Lind, an 18-year-old student at Northern Virginia Community College in Loudoun County, was hired a year ago at the Gap Outlet store in Leesburg for $6.50 an hour. Although he has been bumped up to $8, he plans to jump ship and has given his two weeks' notice to the Gap.
Lind has been recruited by Quicksilver, a surf shop in the same shopping center. He will start out at the same pay, but Quicksilver has told him it will consider him for a raise in a few weeks, and for promotion to assistant manager.
"There is just more opportunity," Lind said.
Likewise, Kari Hoopes was working last fall at the Kids R Us in Sterling when a district manager from the Cosmetic Center boldly walked inside the children's store and began recruiting her.
Hoopes took the job. Within a year she has nearly doubled her salary, to $13.13 an hour, and at age 19 she is the manager of the Cosmetic Center in the Leesburg outlet center. The extra money has allowed her to buy clothing and meals without thinking about whether she has enough funds in the bank.
"We can rent a movie and go out to dinner without having to worry about not being able to pay the bills," said Hoopes, who lives in Arlington. Although Hoopes has been recruited heavily by other store managers, she recently got married and will soon become a homemaker.
While the labor shortage is giving retailers headaches, it also is forcing them to be more creative.
Big chains such as Radio Shack and Sears began recruiting holiday help in the midst of a sizzling August rather than wait until the fall. In the Washington area, Sears department stores have given up on the newspaper classifieds and are starting to look for employees among their own shoppers.
"When a labor market is so short, you have to look at other alternatives," said Peggy Palter, a Sears spokeswoman. "We're not necessarily looking for job seekers but for people like retirees who might not otherwise be looking for a job."
Smaller retailers say they're trying to recruit by appealing to people's interests. Beadazzled, which has jewelry and beads stores at Tysons Corner and Dupont Circle, placed help-wanted signs in the art departments of George Mason University.
"We find that creative types are often attracted to our stores," Beadazzled owner Penny Diamanti said.
Rather than lure valuable employees away from their neighbors, some merchants have cooperated by sharing their workers.
At Tysons Corner, the Build-a-Bear Workshop and Wolf Camera store shared a college student over the summer. And other stores across the region have approached nearby retailers, asking if there might be an employee who wants to have a few extra hours.
But right now, few store managers want to share.
"I can't afford it," said Barksdale of Build-a-Bear Workshop. "I don't have people saying, 'I want more hours.' "
Retaining current staffers has become crucial. Bonuses, raises and flexible schedules are a must. Retailers also are resisting the temptation to dump extra hours on students. They realize that many students do not need to work. And if their performance in school begins to slump, their parents take notice.
"I've let kids do homework on the clock," Barksdale said. "We're trying to give back everything we can, because if they fail their classes, then they quit their jobs. Or, they're tired and treat the customers badly."
The attention to employees' needs is one benefit of the labor shortage--and it is long past due, according to industry insiders. Retailers are better known for punishing hours, low pay and lack of employee appreciation. So when the tight labor market gave people a full slate of job opportunities, it's not surprising that many of them crossed retailing off the list, observers say.
"The industry definitely suffers from an image problem," said Pamela Rucker, a spokeswoman for the National Retail Federation. "There's an assumption that retailing is the job to get you through until you get the next job. We're having a hard time convincing people that not all the jobs stop at the cashier's desk."
CAPTION: Build-a-Bear Workshop manager Heather Barksdale helps shopper Rona Donley and children Jena, 5, and Jeffrey, 8, of Silver Spring. Barksdale's big problem: Rivals keep trying to entice her best employees.