Hiring extra workers during the holiday season is as time honored as Thanksgiving turkeys and ugly Christmas sweaters—but you may want to rethink that strategy in 2019.

It’s going to be harder than ever to hire seasonal workers this year. This holiday season is expected to bring as many as 650,000 job openings—up 11 percent from the year before. The competition to hire is already steep, with over half of small businesses saying they struggle to fill open positions.

Luckily, seasonal hires aren’t the only way to keep up with demand. These days, automated software, cyber sales (think online sales specials like Cyber Monday), and other tech solutions can keep costs low when the season gets merry.

“Technology has really helped small businesses like myself even the playing field without having to spend more capital on more employees,” says Lisa Chu, owner of Black n Bianco, a California-based e-commerce site selling children’s formal wear.

Here’s how real small business owners can dominate the holiday season without adding more workers.

1. Let customers help themselves.

To save staff time answering customer questions, Chu uses the customer service app Zendesk to offer a detailed FAQ, so online shoppers can get the information they need on their own.

“During the holiday season, we turn on the self-service portal, which allows our customers to easily find information to resolve any issues for themselves,” Chu says. It also lets Chu, who has six employees, reassign her customer service agent to help with fulfilling orders on hectic days.

“It allows my small business to operate smoothly when the days get really busy,” she explains.

2. Sell where your customers are.

Swagger Boutique owner Mandy Becker has two shops in North Carolina and also sells items on her e-commerce site. But a big source of new revenue comes from sales made directly on her social media pages.

Her trick? Comment selling. Here’s how Becker does it:

  1. With CommentSold, an automated invoicing tool for Facebook, Becker shares details about items not yet available in her stores, like a new dress.
  2. In the Facebook post, shoppers type “sold” in the comments with the size and color they want.
  3. The invoice goes directly to the shopper via Facebook Messenger.
Facebook image of item for sale
Comment selling screenshot

Many items sell out before they reach her sales floor.

With comment selling, Becker can sell more items than she has room for in her boutiques and, along with her 25 employees, have more time to focus on other tasks. Becker expects she’ll rely on comment selling even more during the holidays—possibly offering a “12 days of Christmas” promotion.

“It takes me an hour and 15 minutes to get the items online,” she said. “It would take way longer to put them in the store.”

3. Embrace the chatbots to automate sales.

Some business owners worry that chatbots—those little boxes that pop up when a customer pulls up a website or social media page— turn off customers. But when done right, says Nausheen Daniel, owner of digital marketing agency Lemondrop Solutions, those little boxes can save time and drive sales. In one case, Daniel helped an e-commerce site increase its profit margin by 23 percent with chatbots.

“A lot of people just think of it as impersonal,” says Daniel, “but [the messages] can be very detailed, targeted, and personalized to serve the customer better.”

Retail bot screenshot

Businesses that get it right don’t just use the bot to greet customers when they open the page. For a retail store, bots can help a shopper dive deeper into their site as they search for an evening gown for a New Year’s Eve party, for example. The bot then narrows down their options as the shopper lets it know what style, color, or neckline they need.

“Nobody is calling up the store,” says Daniel, who uses ManyChat to create chatbots. “Nobody has to make the sale.”

4. Make it easy for customers to find your deals.

Whether it’s a Black Friday deal or a Cyber Monday sale, online promotions can boost your cash flow and bring traffic to your website and social media pages without adding more staff to your sales floor.

Even businesses like salons or massage therapists that usually serve customers face-to-face can increase their bottom line without adding labor costs. Try offering a gift card deal online, says Katie A. Gailes, director of entrepreneurship initiatives at Wake Technical Community College in North Carolina.

The key to success is to promote those deals like crazy. Daniel suggests including links back to special sale pages everywhere you can. In an email blast about Black Friday specials, for example, a link should take customers right to the landing page with those deals.

“Don’t make them search for it,” Daniel says.

5. Set up new tools before things get busy—and look forward.

“Automating whatever can be automated without sacrificing product or service quality is always a good thing,” Gailes says. But launching a new tool when holiday shoppers are on the hunt isn’t the best solution.

Whatever the approach, make sure it’s tried and tested by Googling reviews or giving it a test run yourself, and then kick off the new year by building on the solutions that helped keep your headcount slim during the busiest time of the year. It could be something as simple as extending a Christmas deal into January or sending a thank-you note with a special offer to your newest customers at the start of 2020.

Ask yourself this, says Gailes: “What can you do at the first of the year to capitalize on what you did over the holidays?”

Speaking of next year, are you ready to close out 2019 and tackle 2020 like a boss? For all the other tax and finance things you should be thinking about as the holidays get closer, check out our end-of-year prep guide with handy checklists and advice that will point you in the right direction.

Sarah Hall Sarah Lindenfeld Hall is a longtime journalist and freelance writer based in North Carolina. Her specialties include small business, entrepreneurship, health, and parenting topics.
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