Holiday retail hiring unlikely to get a boost shoppers react to an uncertain economy.


An employee arranges shirts on sale at the store of bespoke tailor Ascot Chang. (LAM YIK FEI/BLOOMBERG)
October 17, 2013

Facing economic wariness and unsteady consumer confidence, retailers are approaching their holiday hiring with caution, forecasters say.

Research firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas said it expects hiring will, at best, match the 752,000 retail jobs that were added last year between October and December, and the National Retail Federation projects retailers will add 720,000 to 780,000 seasonal workers this year.

Retailers are making their staffing decisions against a backdrop of uncertainty caused by tepid economic growth and, more recently, standoffs in Congress over funding the federal government and extending a suspension of the debt limit.

“Retailers are, and have been, and should be entering the hiring season with caution, with red flags up,” said John A. Challenger, chief executive of Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

Toys R Us plans to hire 45,000 workers, about as many as it hired last year. Department store Kohl’s is poised to hire 50,000 workers, also consistent with its 2012 hiring. Macy’s is set to add 83,000 seasonal workers, a slight increase from the 80,000 brought on the previous year. Wal-Mart says it will hire 55,000 holiday workers, a 10 percent jump from 2012. The world’s largest retailer said it will transition an additional 35,000 temporary workers to part-time positions and still another 35,000 part-time workers to full-time positions.

Target, meanwhile, plans to pare back its seasonal staffing. It expects to add 70,000 workers in 2013, compared with 88,000 last year. The company says it is instead focusing on giving current staffers the chance to work extra hours, a decision that was based in part on input from employees.

Target also said that data analysis of shopping patterns played a role in its hiring strategy this year.

“This approach takes into account recent trends that are becoming more and more pronounced — the busy periods are busier than ever, while the early part of December is quieter,” the company said in a blog post.

Analysts say that Target’s model is an example of a broader trend in the retail industry to use big data and analytics to make staffing leaner and more efficient.

“Not only do they have the ratio of staff to traffic coming down . . . But they’re also able to stay right on target with these ratios throughout the season,” Challenger said.

Foot traffic to bricks-and-mortar stores is taking a hit as more consumers buy online. That growth in online shopping seems to be reflected in Amazon.com’s hiring plans. The company said it expects to create 70,000 seasonal positions, a 40 percent increase from last year. (Jeffrey P. Bezos, Amazon’s chief executive, owns The Washington Post.)

For the legions of workers who hope these temporary jobs turn into full-time employment, many retailers have offered reason for optimism. Target said that 34,000 of its seasonal workers were offered year-round positions last year. At Toys R Us, nearly 7,000 were given the opportunity. Amazon said it anticipates that “thousands” of its workers will be asked to stay on in permanent positions after the holiday crush is over.

“You always need good talent within your organization, and there are certain individuals who get on the floor and just shine,” said Thom McElroy, leader of Deloitte Consulting’s retail human capital group.

Although holiday retail hiring is expected to be somewhat flat, sales are predicted to inch up modestly. The National Retail Federation has forecast a 3.9 percent increase to $602.1 billion, an uptick from last year’s sales growth of 3.5 percent.

Sarah Halzack is The Washington Post's national retail reporter. She has previously covered the local job market and the business of talent and hiring. She has also served as a Web producer for business and economics news.
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