Macy’s is offering referral bonuses of up to $500 for each friend or family member that employees recruit to join the company. Walmart is paying as much as $17 an hour to start and has begun offering free college tuition to its workers. And some Amazon warehouse jobs now command signing bonuses of up to $3,000.

Retailers, expecting the holiday shopping season to be bustling once again this year after being upended by the coronavirus in 2020, are scrambling to find enough workers to staff their stores and distribution centers in a tight labor market. It is not proving easy to entice applicants to an industry that has been battered, more than most, by the pandemic’s many challenges, from fights over mask wearing to high rates of infection among employees. Willing retail workers are likely to earn larger paychecks and work fewer hours, while consumers may be greeted by less inventory and understaffed stores.

“Folks looking to work in retail have typically had very little choice — it’s largely been driven by geography and availability of hours,” said Mark A. Cohen, the director of retail studies at Columbia University’s business school. “Now they can pick and choose who’s got the highest, best benefits, bonuses and hourly rates. And as we’ve seen, the escalation has been striking.”

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