As COVID-driven demand continues, retailers scramble to hire on multiple fronts
To stay atop everything from increased web traffic and online orders to deliveries and service calls, many hot tub retailers have created new positions or hired additional support for existing employees in the pandemic. For those lucky enough to find people able and willing to come to work as COVID stubbornly hangs around, adding staff is a relief, but not without logistical and financial bumps.
Ben O’Connell, national sales director of Clearwater Spas of Colorado in Colorado Springs, has added a whopping 35 new positions on both the operations and service sides. He sums it up neatly: “It’s crazy.”
O’Connell’s 35 fresh hires range from security staff to a controller; general managers and assistant managers; delivery drivers; service trainers and service techs; and many more. He placed a “fantastic amount” of hot tub orders on the assumption that plants would close due to COVID; as a result, he has also added sales positions in both retail and wholesale, as well as staff for backyard living, a new category for Clearwater. He says he intends to keep these positions long term as well.
Due to the large orders he placed early on, O’Connell distributes to other dealers in several states; this has led to adding staff for invoicing and calls, among other needs stemming from this new business.
Prior to COVID, the virtual store for Watson’s of Dayton was never a big priority. Store manager Adam Hazenfield says he figured it mostly existed to drive traffic into the store, but recently he hired two people just to oversee web orders and pull product for online order fulfillment.
“We’ve seen a huge uptick that we’ve never had before,” he says of online sales. Hazenfield also hired someone to oversee the website itself, to ensure the Watson’s e-commerce platform is up and running. An especially watchful eye is needed during its Pool School every April, which is a chemical sale now conducted virtually. Customers watch a Facebook Live presentation then place an online order, and “we weren’t set up before to take that online business,” Hazenfield says, adding that these are essential positions he’ll hold onto even after COVID concerns decrease.
David Isaacs, owner at Isaacs Pool & Spa / Bullfrog Spas of Tri-Cities, both located in Johnson City, Tennessee, hired a full-time marketing director in January who is in charge of Isaacs Pools’ website and e-commerce. Isaacs says it became clear during the pandemic that customers want quick, safe and easy purchase options. Isaacs also hired a controller to process orders from and monitor the website, taking calls when people arrive for their BOPIS (buy online, pick up in store) order.
Isaacs says his business has been growing steadily and that his marketing needs are sure to continue, so he intends to hold onto his marketing director even when the store is no longer carrying out as many curbside orders.
Olympic Hot Tub in Seattle has added several positions in both operations and service. Don Riling, president, says April saw the most unit sales in the history of the company. Olympic’s recently added roles include two customer service jobs and an additional post-sale/delivery coordinator, up from just one person in that role prior to COVID. (“We had a lot of bad news to deliver about changing delivery dates,” he says.) He also brought in additional support for his sales manager, who was overseeing seven locations; two sales-manager assistants now help carry that load.
Riling also added a warehouse assistant to make sure orders were fulfilled correctly. He says Olympic is “the odd man out” for its large amount of e-commerce; the retailer pulled in almost $200,000 last year from its online store. “We were shipping out every day, at times faster than Amazon,” he says.
Other recently added positions include an assistant for its service manager because Olympic’s service business has exploded: A lot of people who’d stopped caring for their hot tubs wanted them running again during lockdown, Riling says.
If business continues the way it has been, Riling feels confident most of the new hires can stay on. However, he will continue to stress-test for revenue drops as they relate to payroll expenses. “If we have to cut, who is that going to be?” he says. “That’s never fun — but it’s necessary.”
Any time there are changes to organizational charts, there will be headaches. Isaacs says integrating new positions into a company is never easy, pandemic stress notwithstanding. “Any time you have an organizational change — and I’ve read several books about this — it is different,” he says.
For example, Isaacs’ new marketing director has been tasked with creating videos, but staff are not always eager to appear on camera. After some adjustment, however, staff both new and established are glimpsing how the fresh hires are helping solve problems and providing key support in this season of growth. Things are also settling down at Clearwater Spas, but O’Connell says his new hires created growing pains at first.
“I told my brothers last year in September, our biggest month, that I felt like I was in a shopping cart going downhill with no brakes,” O’Connell says. “Now I feel like we’re driving a well-tuned sports car.”
He’s also had to get used to the idea that he doesn’t know everyone personally who works for him anymore. “That’s a huge change,” O’Connell says, “but with competent managers, I can look at the overview of the business rather than the day-to-day strife. Customers have high expectations and little empathy with supply-chain issues.”
Hazenfield says his new positions sometimes created a headache for both customers and employees: With such a huge volume of BOPIS orders, some Watson’s customers did not select the correct location — the retailer is a franchise — and with 20 to 30 orders a day, it created a strain. It’s so busy in this regard, Hazenfield says, that it’s been hard to train people; sometimes, “here’s a piece of paper, here are inventory numbers, go find the product” has been the extent of it.
Riling has been reeling as well. For him, the headaches have come when trying to reconcile the need for additional hires with the expense of it. “I understand the need for the coming growth, but you don’t want to just increase your payroll and have it not in alignment with your revenue per month,” he says. That gap has narrowed more than he would like, and it’s been difficult to hire service technicians or valet technicians because of a tight job market, he adds.
Help (desperately) wanted
Finding and keeping good employees has never been a breeze for the hot tub industry, and retailers say nothing has changed on that front. Riling says people have been allowed to stay on unemployment “for longer than they should,” and when you add to that Washington state’s requirement that all spa technicians be licensed electricians, hiring can be a doozy. Hazenfield has encountered similar issues. He wants to promote from within, but because things are so busy, the vacated position must immediately be filled.
Small business owners across many industries say they’re in a similar bind. An April 2021 report from the NFIB Research Foundation showed that 44% of small-business owners say they have openings they can’t fill, and 92% of those report few to no qualified applicants for the positions they had open.
“The tight labor market is the biggest concern for small businesses who are competing with various factors such as supplemental unemployment benefits, childcare and in-person school restrictions, and the virus,” NFIB chief economist Bill Dunkelberg says in the findings. “Many small business owners who are trying to hire are finding themselves unsuccessful and are having to delay the hiring or offer higher wages. Some owners are offering ‘show up’ bonuses for workers who agree to take the job and actually show up for work.”
Hazenfield has experienced this directly: “It’s very hard to hire right now,” he says. “I should be at 17 or 18 full-time positions, and I’m at 13 or 14.” He’s marketing the job openings on Indeed, and he says a lot of applications are coming in “so they can say they’re looking for work,” but they’re no-shows for the actual interview.
Riling says he entertained promoting from within, but that was tricky since some of the newly added positions didn’t exist before. “The reality was, people we had working for us already had so much work,” he says. “We didn’t have people we could groom for those roles as fast as we would have needed.”
To be sure, more employees means more cost. Both state and federal laws can change once a company employs more than 50 people, a fact O’Connell is facing as his staff swells. He’ll soon have 50 to 60 employees; before COVID, it was just under 10. He has two CPAs checking each other’s work and looking for federal fund opportunities. (He has heard there are funds for developing new positions.) He’s also kept an eye on OSHA and health care compliance regulations, as well as sick-policy changes.
“It’s just part of the process now, from being a mom-and-pop with a couple friends who work for us, to running a full-size business and all the requirements that go with it,” he says.
Isaacs is still a small company at about 18 to 20 employees, but he says it’s interesting for him on the health-care front. “That’s adding quite a bit of expense, and then simple logistical things like carving out desk space,” he adds. “It all costs money, from desks down to Microsoft and Evosus.”
Riling is also dealing with additional requirements for payroll, health care, benefits and timekeeping, among other twists the 50-employee mark brings. He encourages other dealers to pay attention so as not to get caught out: “Hot tubs have been a cottage industry for so long,” he says, “and [dealers] may not be aware they need to pay attention to this stuff on the HR side. The industry in general should start focusing on this side of evolving small business. That’s another thing that made me resistant — but I’m already on the train.”
These manufacturers have also added new positions due to the COVID rush. While many declined to speak on the record, here are some who would shed some light.
“In early April 2020, Master Spas shut down for six weeks due to the pandemic. A minimal staff mostly worked from home. But within two months, the demand for our product justified hiring a second shift of managers and production workers for our swim spa, acrylic hot tub, rotomold and cover factories. We were in a great position to safely do this after a recent expansion of our campus. We do expect to maintain two shifts long term.” Susan Rekeweg, marketing manager
“One-hundred-and-fifty new positions have been created from April 6, 2020, through today, and more than 500 additional expected within the next 12 months. We absolutely intend to maintain these positions long term, plus many more. We are growing!” Kent Vonada, director of operations
“We have added positions to support our customer (dealer) services teams, as well as in shipping and production planning to support the increase in demand, processing and shipping orders and managing production planning in a higher volume and more dynamic materials supply environment. We will retain the roles through the foreseeable future.” Tracine Andrus Marroquin, vice president of marketing