Raleigh, N.C. — — Getting hired at Raleigh's new Container Store takes a lot more than simply going online and filling out an application.
The lucky few who are offered one of the store's 55 to 60 positions will have to make it through an online application, a phone interview, a two-hour group interview and as many as three additional one-on-one meetings.
The whole process can take three weeks or more, and that's just for a sales position.
Such a stringent interview process could soon be the norm as retailers react to an economy in which consumers are still reluctant to spend and unemployment is still high.
"Companies are being very choosy," said John Challenger, a workforce analyst for Challenger, Gray & Christmas in Chicago. "Five years ago, they had to find people, and there weren't that many people available. Five years ago, it was a worker's market. Now everything has flip-flopped."
Many stores and restaurants now use recruiters to find managers. Workers are being asked to pass a barrage of tests and evaluations. Jumping through such hoops successfully, however, does not guarantee a job.
Only 3% of the people who apply for a job selling boxes, storage containers and organization products at the Container Store will get one. The Dallas-based retailer has about 3,500 employees nationwide.
"That's like getting into Harvard," Challenger said.
So far, about 450 people have applied for jobs at the Raleigh store.
The new emphasis on the hiring process is expected to have a dramatic effect on holiday hiring — a process that many stores start in September.
Many retailers make up to 40% of their annual sales in November and December. Hiring the right salespeople for that time has become crucial.
"All the retailers are starting to focus on the last link in the supply chain, the salesperson," said Leif Kolflat, director of marketing and communications for Headway, a Raleigh staffing firm that works to fill positions for dozens of retailers including Hickory Farms and Casual Male. "The key driver that will ultimately drive sales is people, is talent."
For Casual Male, Headway recruits and interviews for the chain's managerial positions, a process that includes a customized behavioral assessment interview and can take about 35 days, Kolflat said.
"They're not just looking for someone to ring a register," he said. "It's very strategic. They're realizing that hiring retail talent has got to come more to the forefront."
Retail is already one of the most important sectors in the economy. With unemployment still high at 9.6%, many undoubtedly will try to get seasonal work.
Last year, 453,600 workers were hired nationally to work only from October through January. Most workers will be hired by early November.
Many larger retailers are already starting to look for holiday help, Kolflat said.
Headway is expecting to hire 8,400 holiday workers this year, up from 7,300 last year.
Kolflat said it's possible to get 1,000 applications for just one sales job. Headway customizes its search for each retailer that uses the company for hiring, but Kolflat said it's not unusual for sales positions to require online behavioral assessments. Headway also uses a tracking system that gathers and tracks a job candidate's testing, screening and work history.
Applicants say they don't mind the extra scrutiny.
"I liked that they get to know you and hopefully they know more about you," said Lauren Lanier, a 31-year-old from Raleigh. "This way you're not going to waste your time if the company's not right for you."
At the Container Store, a group of 10 potential employees including Lanier recently participated in the group interview.
Sitting in a semicircle, they first shared their "homework": Applicants were asked to research how Container Store products would help them organize an area in their home.
From start to finish, it may take three weeks for the entire interview and application process, said Container Store recruiting and training director Karyn Maynard.
"One of our foundation principles is that one great person is equal to three good people in terms of business productivity, so our philosophy is, why not hire only great people?" she said.
Stock writes for McClatchy News Service.