A new sign of the holidays is popping up at local stores among the Christmas trees, silver bells and poinsettias: "Help Wanted."

With two weeks left before Christmas, local retailers are eagerly searching for extra workers to help them handle a hoped-for last-minute buying rush. Even the ultimate purveyor of Christmas presents is having trouble finding help: Santa's helpers are in short supply.

"In most of the malls, you can't go anywhere and not find 'Help Wanted' signs," said Marty Bonda, manager of the Hahn's shoe store in Montgomery Mall and president of the mall's merchants association.

"We're finding it difficult to get the employes we need," said Arnold Bronfin, chairman of the Complement, the nine-store luggage and accessory chain.

Bronfin, like many other retailers, is using a variety of tactics to recruit more employes. Among other things, he is paying his employes a finder's fee if they bring in friends or relatives who end up staying at least 90 days.

What's more, to keep its longtime employes from being lured away to other retailers during the holidays, the Complement pays a bonus to employes on their yearly anniversary.

Other chains, such as Erol's and W. Bell & Co., have stepped up their recruitment of college and high school students to get the help they need, while many chains are paying premium wages or improving standard compensation plans to lure additional workers.

Meanwhile, Sears, Roebuck & Co. and a handful of other retailers operating in Montgomery County are taking advantage of the county's "Holiday Helper" program, in which the county subsidizes the transportation costs of holiday employes.

Finding adequate help at all times of the year has been an increasing problem for retailers in the Washington area, where the unemployment rate is around 4 percent. The area's affluence -- household after-tax income averages $47,273, 42 percent above the U.S. average -- also means that fewer high school students and people not wanting fulltime work take part-time jobs.

The last-minute buying crunch at Christmas makes the employment shortage all the more acute -- especially this year, when stores, vying for what appear to be more cost-conscious shoppers, are trying to win customers by improving service.

For instance, the Complement, trying to overcome a 7 percent shortfall of employes, is holding contests within the chain to boost productivity. If the stores manage to meet their targeted sales figures even with fewer employes, workers will win $50 gift certificates. Employes in the store that does the best will get $100 gift certificates.

Some chains, such as Britches of Georgetowne, are running crash training courses for college students looking for work during Christmas vacation.

W. Bell is handling employe shortages by shifting its workers from store to store, depending on where the need is the greatest, and reimbursing them for travel expenses. "We're finding that employment to the levels we want is more difficult than it's been," said Martin Pfeiffer, Bell's vice president for finance.

Bell finds itself short-staffed despite stepped-up recruitment efforts this fall. "We had gone to colleges and high schools and senior citizens homes and offered additional compensation to existing employes if they found friends who came to work and stayed for Christmas," Pfeiffer said. "We also ran a number of job fairs and sent out flyers to parts of our mailing list saying there were jobs available."

Temporary holiday-season workers at Bradlees stores have been granted immediate discount privileges in the chain's stores, eliminating its usual waiting period. Also, to give employes more time to spend with customers rather than stocking shelves, the chain increased the size of its nighttime stocking crews.

Retailers at the area's large department stores, however, say they have not been so troubled by large shortages of employes -- partly because many started early this year to fill the jobs.

Joseph Culver, Woodward & Lothrop's senior vice president for personnel and services, said that in addition to early recruiting, the department store chain is offering a new compensation system that includes commissions for full-time workers at four stores where labor shortages are most acute. Those factors may have helped increase the number of applicants, Culver said, although Woodies still has had problems filling some positions.

Bloomingdale's at Tysons Corner has instituted a new compensation system that gives even part-time sales clerks a commission on what they sell. "Knock on wood, I feel pretty good" about the store's employment level, said Barbara Hammer, its manager.

Some critical shortages in the area have yet to be felt, cautioned Victoria Mack, manager of the Rockville branch of Western Temporary Services, which supplies the critical ingredient to many Christmas events: Santa's helpers.

"We don't have enough," she said. "We could use at least three to four more to the 12 we have. If we don't get them, there will be some very disappointed children who are expecting to go to places where Santa will be. We may not be able to staff all the Santas where they are supposed to be.