The 2021 Holiday Buying Season – Employee Shortages, Angry Customers and Rising Costs

Festive X-mas tree with text "Sorry for the long wait times... If you want faster service, please feel free to fill out job application. Happy Holidays!" (Sarcasm visually implied)

The 2021 Holiday Buying Season – Employee Shortages, Angry Customers and Rising Costs

The 2021 holiday buying season is riddled with post-pandemic challenges including:

  • Too few employees
  • Angry/stressed customers
  • Delays in shipping times
  • Increases in costs like fuel, wages

Let’s look at the current crazy state of affairs for workers, customers and businesses.

Employee Shortages – Not Enough Cooks in the Kitchen

The employee shortage in certain sectors is putting a particular strain on increased holiday demands by shoppers. Companies are pulling back on what they offer to save money, but it has negative consequences across the board. This hasn’t just started with the onset of the holidays. An October article from NPR introduced us to skimpflation and its results:

“Domino’s is taking longer to deliver pizzas. Airlines are putting customers who call them on hold for hours. Restaurants, bars and hotels are understaffed and stretched thin. The quality of service seems to be deteriorating everywhere.”   

Retail, fast food, hotels, customer service agents – these are not high level, career type jobs. They have high turnover and often a younger workforce. In 2019 it was common for fast food chains to lose 130% of employees per year. That’s more than their full roster of workers. This year it hit 144% turnover. 2021 has seen employees leave jobs in record breaking numbers. Is it really a surprise though?

When service workers are faced with the decision between money and safety it is a tough call. In retail environments where managers and fellow employees disregard mask mandates other employees would rather quit. Company policy doesn’t mean much when it doesn’t accurately reflect what happens during the day to day slog. 

Improvements in working conditions for these low paying jobs are a long time coming. Workers have more choice, more power and they are using it to send a message. The employee walkout on Thanksgiving Day at a Boston Market in Rancho Cucamonga, CA is an example. The no show was attributed to “several weeks of mismanagement.” The result was angry customers who had pre-paid for Thanksgiving meals that they never received. 

Boston Market has more work ahead than just refunding those customers. They have to rebuild trust with customers and potential employees. Such an extreme act of solidarity from the employees does not make the company look like a quality work environment (and that’s an understatement).

Take This Job and…

Is $11.59 an hour worth it for work related stress that causes an employee seizures? What about the employees who have to keep their cell phones in their lockers and then endure a mass shooting? Or how about being threatened with a sledgehammer during a smash and grab?  

Employees treated like collateral damage have little incentive to show up when the reward is so much less than the risk.

Are employees leaving because customers suck too? Partly.  However, everyone is a customer and customers are also getting the short end of the stick.

Skimpflation = Angry Customers – Paying the Same or More but Getting Less

This Harvard Gazette article talks about customers berating wait staff (I first read it as “beating wait staff” which would be a whole other legal state of affairs) over long wait times. Stories about customers flying off the handle are common now.  As an example of the increase, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has 5,338 unruly passenger reports and over 1,000 investigations as of November 23rd, 2021 . Compared that to a total 146 investigations for all of 2019. (Ah, 2019. Those were the days.)

Why are customers so enraged?

As mentioned in the previous section, service is down all over. The aforementioned NPR article details how customers are paying the same or more for products that “kinda suck compared with what they used to be.” This is impacting the 2021 holiday buying season.

The staffing shortage combined with increased fuel costs is causing delays that have a domino effect. All of that is true, but the real clincher is that customer expectations have not adjusted accordingly. Customers recall the good old days (remember 2019?) and they want them back. They have no awareness of the human and monetary costs involved to get them the t-shirt they ordered looking exactly as it does in the photo (which may have been enhanced for Instagram style aesthetics).

Long wait times, less value, more rules, too few employees (or none at all!) – it isn’t a shock that customers, like employees, are reacting. 

There are companies completely automating their customer service or worse, burying any access to it. If a customer does find a method of connecting often it doesn’t lead to a person at all, or an answer.

Then there are the basic life stressors.

Schools are closing on some days due to staffing shortages, daycares also. Parents are just having to deal with it. Those same parents are the customers, the managers, the customer service agents in the above scenarios. 

Mask and vaccine mandates keep changing too. Businesses, workers and customers have to keep adapting in the midst of all of these challenges and the political, practical and  emotional impact. 

Rising Costs – Businesses Struggling to Appease Workers and Customers

The repeated refrain of employee shortage has been going on for months. Another one of 2021’s great additions to history will be The Great Resignation that started in April. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor report, 4.3 million quit their jobs in August. In September that number rose to 4.4 million.  

Businesses have tried increasing pay, offering unique benefits, but the quit rates are at historic highs. 

Even with the wage increases, many employees are still not making enough to account for the level of inflation. Rising gas prices are adding to the problem by affecting supply chains and reducing what customers would spend this 2021 holiday buying season.

In customer service, if you’re having an employee shortage and angry customers taking it out on your staff, what can you do to hire and maintain workers? It is clear that workers want to be heard and appreciated, which reduces turnover. That empathy is more than wages. A study by Stanford indicated workers are willing to take a pay cut to work in a place that fit their values. 

Considering the pre-pandemic cost of filling an agent’s seat was anywhere from $10,000 – $20,000, investing in keeping employees is even more worth the effort in 2021.

Using tools that support both customer service agents and customers helps to retain both. AI based software that assists agents in real time to fully address customer issues reduces the number of interactions needed. 

It makes sense to invest in tools for faster training, positive reinforcement, and empathetic customer service. Both sides benefit from a humane system to automate QA with AI assistance. Have you booked a demo with CSAT.AI yet? Our system was designed to reduce employee churn rates and improve customer satisfaction simultaneously.