Holiday Jobs Dry Up as Economy Weakens

By Ylan Q. Mui and V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, November 17, 2008

This is the time of year when retail jobs are supposed to be as plentiful as holiday cheer, when stores gear up for the Christmas rush by filling their sales floors with college students, moonlighters and anyone else looking to shore up their income.

But no one is feeling very jolly this year.

Faced with plummeting sales and spooked shoppers, retailers have cut back on holiday hiring at a time when their pool of applicants is swelling with those who have been laid off from other industries. About 272,000 retail jobs were open at the end of September, according to government data released last week, down 24 percent from the same month last year. Those numbers are expected to drop further as retailers cut back on opening new stores and close those that don't perform well.

"It's bleak on both sides," said K.C. Blonski, director of travel, leisure and retail markets for consulting firm AchieveGlobal. "Retailers are looking at the cost of adding to their labor pool. The jobs are little and far between."

Even those who have jobs are not unscathed. Managers at restaurants throughout the Washington region say they not only are reducing staff through attrition, but they are also cutting hours. Some servers say they are getting fewer tips because fewer people are dining out and those who do have become more stingy.

For Rick and Nina Ivey, owners of 15 Virginia Barbeque restaurants, the contracting economy means a halt in hiring even though a flurry of people in their 30s and 40s have asked about entry-level jobs. For 18-year-old Megan Waters of Annapolis, it means applying at 14 stores before landing a job at California Tortilla. And for a national retailer like Best Buy, it means nearly 1 million applicants for no more than 20,000 seasonal jobs, a 20 percent increase in applicants over previous years.

The national unemployment rate reached 6.5 percent in October, according to government data, and some analysts are projecting that it will climb to 7.3 percent next year after hovering between 4 and 5 percent for about three years. There were 1,330 mass layoffs during the third quarter that affected nearly 220,000 workers, spurred largely by slowing demand for consumer goods -- and leaving many of those affected to turn to the retail and restaurant sector as they scramble to make ends meet this holiday season.

"Typically in a down economy, there are definitely more applicants," said Dan Butler, vice president of merchandising and retail operations at the National Retail Federation, a trade group. "For retailers, it's good to have more applicants because you can be sure that you're getting the best possible candidate. But they're not going to hire more."

Toys R Us said the applicant pool for its 35,000 seasonal positions is larger and more qualified than in previous years. Outdoor retailer Bass Pro Shops said roughly 3,500 people applied for 300 jobs at a store that will open in Alabama this week. It has seen increased interest in its 1,500 holiday jobs. Best Buy store manager Robert Delissio said this year many applicants have shown up at his Columbia Heights store with professional résumés in hand. He's hired between 35 and 45 people so far.

"I'm a little bit more selective now than I would normally have to be," he said.

The Container Store began its holiday recruitment and hiring late last month, and applications are up about 5 to 10 percent from last year, said John Thrailkill, vice president of stores. Typically, each store adds 15 to 20 employees to its average staff of 60 during the holiday season. But as sales slow this year, it is planning to hire just an additional 12 to 15 workers.

"It definitely makes it a little more competitive environment," he said.

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