Despite worries over consumer spending during the holidays, retailers are hanging out help-wanted signs or posting jobs on the Internet in hopes of hiring as many or slightly more seasonal store workers than a year ago.
Retailers are expected to add 400,000 to 500,000 temporary jobs in November and December - about 1.5 percent to 2.5 percent more than during nonholiday months, the National Retail Federation (NRF) projects.
Last year, about 23.9 million people worked in retail in November and December, or 1.63 percent more than in any of the first 10 months of the year, the NRF said. That was the smallest jump in holiday hiring in a decade in which increases ranged from 1.93 percent in 1991 to 4 percent in 1994, the NRF said.
Retailers hired fewer workers than usual for the 2001 holiday season after terrorist attacks prompted forecasters to lower sales expectations.
This year, even with consumer confidence at a nine-year low, retailers are taking no chances on losing business to better-staffed competitors and won't likely skimp on the number of workers, experts say.
"Retailers know its always busy, and the last thing they want to do is disappoint customers or not serve them because they don't have enough on staff," said Ellen Tolley, an NRF spokeswoman. "Most retailers, from small gift card shops to huge discount or department stores are looking to add on for the holiday season."
The Discovery Channel Store plans to staff its 167 stores at two to three times the normal levels, said Pamela Rucker, a spokeswoman. The usual 10 employees per store would grow to 25 or 30, she said, slightly more than in previous years. The retailer also plans to increase the hours of current sales people.
Mike Zuber, the general manager of the Discovery Channel Store at Harborplace, said he typically looks to fill positions with former summer workers who are familiar with the retail chain.
"It hasn't been very difficult for us to find people; there are a lot of good quality people," said Zuber, who said he has gotten about as many applications as usual.
Though the number of seasonal workers might exceed last year's, it still won't approach the more robust numbers of years past. Between 1998 and 2000 retailers added an average of 739,000 workers in November and December, the NRF said
And a survey of state retail associations shows that while retailers will bring on extra help, those numbers could be 10 percent to 15 percent lower than normal because of low expectations for sales growth.
Of about 25 retail associations surveyed by outplacement consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., 63 percent said holiday hiring by their members would likely be down from years past, in some cases by as much as 25 percent.
The firm noted that retail employment in October was down to 23.3 million, from 23.5 million in October 2001.
Hiring is expected to be most brisk at large department and chain stores, which will probably increase staffs by the usual 20 percent to 25 percent, the survey said.
Discounters, too, are expected to need more workers.
"Consumers are far more price-sensitive than in the past, so whoever has the lowest prices, those guys will get the sales," said Anthony Liuzzo, professor of business and economics at Wilkes University in Pennsylvania.
Sears, Roebuck and Co., for one, plans to boost its numbers of store workers by 20 percent to 25 percent as it has for the past few years.
"There is discussion about whether people are going to shop, but there's no question there will be a more intense level of activity in the stores [compared with nonholiday months], and we have to have those people for customer service," said Jan Drummond, a Sears spokeswoman. "We have to be very competitive in the market this year."
J.C. Penney Co. Inc. is trying to woo applicants by making it as easy as possible to apply - in stores, online or through a toll-free number - by offering special incentives such as bonuses and by paying more than last year in most markets. Penney hires holiday help based on the need and size of each store, typically 10 percent to 15 percent more than the annual crew, but "overall, hiring levels are going to remain flat as compared to last year," said Stephanie Brown, a spokeswoman.
This year, though, the chain plans to hire more people to replenish stock and work cash registers than to staff departments. The new focus is part of a shift to a centralized checkout system.
"Shopping is all about speed and convenience during the holidays, getting in and out, especially during the holidays when you're fighting the crowds," Brown said.
On the flip side of a weakened economy, retailers are having a somewhat easier time finding qualified workers. They're drawing from a pool that includes the usual students seeking part-time work as well as an increasing number of workers with office jobs looking for extra spending money.
"It's a different atmosphere," said Rucker, of Discovery Channel. "For folks who may have had great jobs last year and don't have them this year, a couple of years ago the thought of working a second job for the holiday season may have been the furthest thing from their minds."
Brown, the Penney spokeswoman, said the pool of qualified applicants has grown and includes more people with business and customer service experience.
One respondent to the Challenger, Gray & Christmas hiring survey said holiday-season applicants used to be mostly teen-agers.
Now, said Wanda Easley-Small, the human resources manager for Macy's West in Albuquerque, N.M., the stores are seeing older applicants, including retirees and white-collar professionals who have lost their jobs to downsizing.