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Seasonal holiday hiring expected to stay flat

Many merchants are hiring conservatively because they don't want to risk an excess of workers. The growth of online shopping has also decreased the need for hordes of employees in bricks-and-mortar stores.

October 18, 2011|By Andrea Chang, Los Angeles Times
  • Kim Zitnitsky and Philippe Coissac stand outside of Bloomingdale's in the Beverly Center mall after participating in interviews at the store for seasonal workers.
Kim Zitnitsky and Philippe Coissac stand outside of Bloomingdale's… (Katie Falkenberg, For The…)

A stagnant job market and tight budgets are forcing many Californians to head to the malls in search of temporary work this holiday season.

With statewide unemployment at 12.1%, the demand for jobs of all kinds is high. But seasonal retail hiring is expected to stay about the same as last year, with any increases coming in the form of small gains, retail groups said.

And some of the most popular stores for holiday shopping, such as Best Buy and Toys R Us, are scaling back their Christmastime workforces.

That's a disappointment for job seekers such as Kim Zitnitsky, 25, who has been having trouble paying her rent and other expenses. About two months ago, the server at a Santa Monica pizzeria decided she needed some extra money and figured a temporary job — although not her first choice — would help make ends meet in the weeks ahead.

"It's good for now, but the holidays will come to an end," Zitnitsky said as she left a recent group interview at Bloomingdale's in the Beverly Center. "I'd love to have a career, but this is just what's available."

Retailers hire an influx of employees during the holiday season — often doubling their employee counts — to accommodate an uptick in traffic and sales. Many have been quickly recruiting and training new hires during the last few weeks.

But this year, with economists and analysts predicting only a modest year-over-year increase in holiday sales, many merchants are hiring conservatively because they don't want to risk an excess of underutilized workers. The growth of online shopping has also decreased the need for hordes of employees in bricks-and-mortar stores.

"Over-hiring would be just like getting way too much merchandise on your shelves," said John A. Challenger, chief executive of global outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas. Retailers "are trying to keep their costs down, so I think what we'll see is companies adopting strategies like giving their current workers more hours, having a second call-in workforce that they can call if the traffic is better than their forecasts."

That's a reversal from last year, when many retailers swelled their workforces in anticipation of a healthy holiday season, leading to a 27% increase in seasonal hires from 2009, the consulting firm said.

This year, Macy's Inc. plans to hire roughly 78,000 seasonal associates for its Macy's and Bloomingdale's stores, call centers, distribution warehouses and online fulfillment centers, about a 4% rise from last year's holiday season.

Kohl's Corp. is hiring more than 40,000 seasonal associates nationwide, up about 5% from the same period in 2010 to accommodate new stores that opened this year.

After hiring more than 92,000 seasonal team members nationwide last year, Target Corp. is planning to hire "slightly more than that" this year, a company spokesman said. J.C. Penney Co. expects to add 37,000 workers, up from 30,000 last year.

Meanwhile Best Buy Co., which has lost market share to less expensive online electronics sellers, said it would hire just 15,000 blue-shirt associates for the holidays, about half as many as it hired last year; the retailer said it would give current workers additional hours. Toys R Us Inc. said it would hire more than 40,000 employees to staff its U.S. stores and distribution centers for the holidays, 5,000 fewer than last year.

All told, retailers are expected to hire between 480,000 and 500,000 seasonal workers nationwide this holiday season, comparable to the 495,000 seasonal employees they hired last year, the National Retail Federation estimated.

Challenger, Gray & Christmas took a more downbeat tone, cautioning that job gains in the retail sector from October through December could decline from last year. The firm was blunt in its outlook, saying "The latest bumps on the economy's road to recovery could not have come at a worse time for holiday job seekers."

Seasonal jobs have typically appealed most to college students home for break, stay-at-home moms and others looking for some extra spending money around the holidays, plus generous employee discounts. But with unemployment stuck at 9.1% nationally, temporary retail work has become an attractive option for jobless Americans as well.

Jimmy Yu has had trouble finding a full-time job since moving to Los Angeles from Hawaii in June, so he recently began applying to temporary positions at retailers including Macy's and Bloomingdale's.

"Too many people are applying for jobs. I think I've applied for five jobs so far, some full time, some part time," the 30-year-old said. He's put off his permanent job search until 2012 "because the economy is so bad."

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