In the midst of an unprecedented labor shortage, two of the nation's largest retailers have found a way to hire thousands of job applicants in record time. And they're saving millions of dollars in the process.

Computerized employment kiosks have helped Atlanta-based The Home Depot and Minneapolis-based Target streamline their hiring practices. Would-be employees, instead of waiting for a manager to hand over a pencil and a blank application, now just plop down at a computer screen and start pressing buttons.

"The person looks at a five-minute video, fills out the application and then decides whether to follow through with a personal interview," says Carol Schumacher, a spokeswoman for The Home Depot. "The application lets us see whether candidates have painting, plumbing or other valuable experience. The video lets them know about the opportunities that The Home Depot offers, as well as the duties and hours expected."

The Home Depot and Target are among the first major retailers to use kiosks to process the bulk of their new hires. They say the technology is fast, efficient and bias-free. The kiosks are placed in highly visible locations in each store and tend to attract qualified applicants as a kind of impulse buy.

An emerging trend According to some industry observers, job kiosks could signal the beginning of important changes, leaving slow-to-respond retailers at a disadvantage. "I think we're going to see recruiting in the retail business be transformed by this type of technologically driven sourcing tool," says John Challenger, CEO of Challenger, Gray and Christmas, a Chicago-based outplacement firm.

Simon Property Group, which uses job kiosks at Mall of America, is studying whether to install the devices at its malls nationwide. Simon recently signed a contract with Intuitive Solutions, an employment kiosk company based in St. Paul, Minn., for a year-long pilot program.

"What we're doing is experimenting with options on how to support Simon's tenants in the Indianapolis market," says Robert F. Bro, Intuitive's president. "We've taken their five major malls in Indianapolis and made employment kiosks available to their tenants for one year."

Where high-income job seekers might rely on the Internet or newspaper classified sections, the kiosks appeal to young, technologically savvy, low- to middle-income applicants - people who are likely to frequent malls and to identify with their favorite retailers, Bro says.

Intuitive Solutions has installed a total of 17 kiosks (one or two per mall, each costing around $10,000) for the Simon pilot program. The kiosks display available retail jobs and enable users to apply. So far, Bro says, the 17-kiosk network has produced excellent results, processing an average of 3,000 applications per month. In addition, Intuitive Solutions recently signed a trial contract with Tricon Corp., the parent company of Pizza Hut, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Taco Bell, to place job kiosks in 14 restaurants.

Short-staffed, shorter tempers Carts and kiosks have been retail workhorses for years. But the Internet could lead to a new wave of web-enabled, retail-oriented kiosks, observers say. In the near future, a single interactive kiosk might perform multiple functions, allowing users to shop on-line, print coupons, check e-mail, or peruse available retail jobs. Target and other companies even plan to set up job kiosks far away from their retail stores, collecting applications in high-traffic areas such as concerts, festivals, public libraries and university campuses.

"It won't be long before every retailer has kiosks and Internet recruiting technology," says Mitch Potter, a consultant for William M. Mercer Inc. in Minneapolis. "Everything in business today is meant to move things out of the system that don't add value. And moving pieces of paper around, going through laborious human resources processes, isn't adding any value."

In today's tight labor market, being fully staffed is essential to providing quality customer service. Too often, consumers at short-staffed stores wait in long lines or deal with rude, overwhelmed cashiers. Challenger says technology will prove a valuable weapon in retail's increasingly intense battle for customers - and the workers who serve them.

"The crux of the competition is going to be who can hire the most qualified people the quickest," he says. "This is the kind of invention that will really benefit those companies that embrace it."