After scaling back on temporary holiday workers during the recession, many retailers are aggressively ramping up their seasonal hiring plans, giving job seekers a glimmer of hope and lifting optimism for a healthy Christmas.
Toys R Us Inc. is hiring 45,000 holiday employees, a nearly 30% increase compared with last year; Kohl's Corp. is hiring 20% more workers; and Brookstone Inc. is adding 36% more. Department store giants Macy's Inc. and JCPenney Co. said they were slightly increasing their holiday hiring numbers to meet demand.
That's good news for people such as Sharon Jun, who had difficulty scoring a seasonal job last holiday season. Although she applied to 20 stores, she got only one offer as a sales associate at Macy's in the Glendale Galleria.
This year, the 23-year-old from Koreatown, who is hoping to use the extra money to help pay off school loans and other debt, has already seen more job postings and recently went to the Beverly Center in Los Angeles to pick up applications from Bath & Body Works, XXI Forever and Brookstone.
"It is encouraging, and I think it definitely motivates me," said Jun, who holds a temp job in accounting at an insurance company. "Last year, I couldn't really be that picky just because there wasn't anything available."
Seasonal retail jobs this year are expected to be more plentiful than they've been since the recession began, which economists say is a promising sign for job seekers. It also shows that retailers are feeling confident that consumers will turn out and spend more than they did last year.
"This broad-based improvement that we saw in retail sales throughout this year is what's driving the improvement in seasonal hiring," said Michael Niemira, chief economist of the International Council of Shopping Centers, who estimated that holiday revenue at major chain stores would rise 3% to 3.5% this year.
"It just builds upon itself: more staffing, more sales," he added.
According to a Hay Group survey of big retailers, 83% are planning to hire more or about the same number of holiday workers compared with last year — a significant change from the 40% who planned to reduce staffing levels in 2009.
Industrywide, retailers are expected to add 550,000 to 600,000 jobs in the fourth quarter, according to estimates by Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc. The outplacement firm said that would outpace job growth during the last two holiday seasons — retail payrolls in the fourth quarter rose by 501,000 last year and by just 384,000 in 2008 — but would still fall well below pre-recession levels.
Every year, retailers increase their staffing levels during the October through December months, hiring people to work in call centers, distribution warehouses and stores, where they assist customers, ring up purchases and restock merchandise.
The mostly part-time positions are traditionally snapped up by college students home for winter break, stay-at-home moms and people looking for some extra income.
This year, however, retailers could see a more diverse and competitive applicant pool with so many Americans out of work. A disappointing jobs report released last week showed that the nation's unemployment rate remained at 9.6% in September, reflecting a stagnant labor force.
After looking for work on and off for the last two years — and getting laid off three times in between — Toni Shizuru, 54, is considering applying for a seasonal retail job even though she'd prefer permanent work in hospitality training and management, her previous profession.
"Customer service is customer service as long as you firmly believe in what you're selling, so to me it's a fairly easy and logical transition," the unemployed Westwood resident said, before adding: "And there are bills that need to be paid."
For some retailers, the boost in hiring this year is a result of opening up more seasonal kiosks and other temporary outlets. At Brookstone, for example, the specialty retailer will operate about 150 seasonal stores and kiosks this holiday season, up from 109 stores last year.
To staff those temporary shops and the company's 310 year-round retail stores, Brookstone is expanding its seasonal staff by 36% compared with last year, with plans to hire as many as 2,000 temporary workers, said Michael Dobbs, the retailer's chief marketing officer.
"It's based on the traffic that we're seeing, and also on specific products that we're making bets on that so far look pretty good," he said. "It makes us really bullish."
Toys R Us also has announced ambitious seasonal plans, saying it will operate about 600 temporary toy shops for the holidays in addition to its 587 full-line U.S. stores. As a result, the toy giant will bulk up its workforce by hiring about 45,000 seasonal workers nationwide, more than it has hired during each of the last three Christmas seasons.
That includes about 2,500 seasonal employees in the Los Angeles area to staff 33 full-line stores and 45 Toys R Us Express locations.