Now that local retailers have kicked off the holiday shopping season, one question is whether they will try to get through their busiest time of year with less extra hiring than usual, as they did in 2004.

One way to get a sense of how much holiday hiring local retailers do each year is to subtract the number of people they have on their payrolls in October from the number on their payrolls in December. Last year, that differential was 14,400 jobs, representing a 5.4 percent rise in Washington area retailers' payrolls from October to December.

That was less holiday hiring than in any year since 1991, which happened to be the depths of a recession. Over the past decade, the region has added, on average, 18,000 retail jobs from October to December, for an average 7.4 percent increase. The weak holiday hiring in 2004 is all the more surprising, given that it was a boom year for the regional economy.

So what's going on? It appears retailers are getting better about spreading their hiring throughout the year to lessen the binge-and-purge cycle of massive hiring in the lead-up to the holidays followed by equally massive layoffs in January. They have used sales and promotions to attract shoppers more evenly throughout the year. After all, hiring and training thousands of workers for two months' work is tremendously inefficient.

When November and December payroll data for 2005 come out early next year, we'll know if the trend continued from 2004.

-- Neil Irwin