Incentives Keep Elves Jolly

How to help IT workers cope with holiday stress.

Its llcs second holiday e-tailing season, and at the educational toy retailer, no ones going home early for the holidays.

With the electronic retailing arm of Zany Brainy Inc. depending on the make-or-break holiday season for 60 percent of its profits, ITers will be putting in 14-hour days, making sure the Web site stays up and running and customers keep coming back for more.

But those long workdays dont mean executives at, in New York, turn into Grinches. Aware of the pressure, CEO DeWayne Martin is offering incentives such as cash bonuses, holiday parties and toys to keep his IT staff members happy.

E-tailers this season are concerned about lawsuits brought by the Federal Trade Commission against well-known e-tailers, including LLC and Inc., for overpromising and not delivering during last years holiday season; the tight labor market; and the fact that analysis companies such as Forrester Research Inc. estimate that online spending will double last years total, reaching $10 billion.

Those issues have combined to create high anxiety among e-tailers, which must keep the techies they depend on content so that everything will run smoothly. Thats why companies like say theyre offering incentives as a gesture of gratitude.

Those who dont may wind up suffering problems similar to those of Inc. The company recently stepped up its antiunion activities after two unions and an independent organizing group, angry about long work hours and dropping stock prices, announced plans to speed efforts to unionize during the holiday rush.

"It doesnt hurt to reward those employees you depend on with the almighty cash bonus," said Brian Farro, vice president of managed services at online procurement service SkillsVillage Inc., in Sunnyvale, Calif. "Offering incentives tends to increase morale and productivity."

At, Martin also has an ulterior motive for holiday generosity. He wants to beat its own commendable past performance. Last year, launched in November—just in time for the shopping season—and was recognized as the fifth-best online toy store by Gomez Inc., in Lincoln, Mass. This year, the site is aiming for No. 1.

That means putting in extra hours. During the peak season from Thanksgiving to New Years Day, the companys 22-person IT staff will be on-site 14 hours a day on rotating schedules, working alongside 19 IT workers from application service provider Online Retail Partners Inc., of New York. outsources much of its infrastructure and technology to Online Retail Partners and requested that extra contractors be brought in during the holiday season to reduce the workload.

But with such a tight labor market, even contractors expect incentives. SkillsVillages Farro said many e-tailers bring in temporary workers during the holiday season to help out and end up enticing them with cash bonuses, gift certificates and gifts. At, Online Retail Partners handles the incentives, but contractors are invited to participate in holiday parties.

United Parcel Service of America Inc., among other companies, institutes a freeze on technology development during the holiday season and invites its 3,000-plus IT staffers to try something new—namely, riding shotgun with delivery employees as they make their holiday runs. To ensure that the companys Web site and tracking capabilities work during this peak season, IT makes no changes to the Web site after October, freeing employees to take a break from their hectic schedules. Only six employees will remain on-site Christmas Eve and Christmas Day to monitor the Web site.

Of course, having a party doesnt hurt, either. UPS, based in Atlanta, will provide festive food and drinks to those who work over the holidays. And at Inc., in Napa, Calif., employees will be treated to wine tasting and a party next month to celebrate the end of the holiday e-tailing season. The reason is waiting until after peak season? No one has time to party now. will take it a step further with a party this month and then a blowout celebration of e-tailing success next month. Last year, after the holiday mania, employees were treated to catered beer and pizza. This year, Martin will host a party for the company in New York.

"Were able to deliver ... because we have a great relationship with our staff," Martin said. "The people who work here love their jobs, and we show our appreciation to keep it that way."