Analysis: Wary retailers play safe with holiday hiring

By Dhanya Skariachan

NEW YORK (Reuters) - People looking for a temporary retail job this holiday season will have better luck at dollar stores and discounters than at department stores and middle market apparel chains, as the anemic U.S. economy keeps other retailers cautious.

Discounter Target Corp <TGT.N>, which hired more than 92,000 seasonal workers last year, and home shopping channel QVC Inc <LQCVI.UL> are among the few that plan to hire more temporary workers.

"The biggest area (of hiring) will be in the discounters, who will have new shoppers in their stores who are moving down from the middle market. The upper end seems to be fairly stable, but it is the middle end of the spectrum that I think will be very minimalist in their hiring," said John Challenger, chief executive of global outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

Chains including J.C. Penney <JCP.N>, Kohl's <KSS.N>, GameStop <GME.N>, Toys R Us <TOY.UL> and Crate & Barrel told Reuters they plan to hire roughly the same number of seasonal workers as last year.

"They are being very conservative because they just don't know what to expect," Elizabeth Moughan, senior manager of retail and hospitality marketing at Kronos, said. "There was a little bit of false optimism for a while."

But that was earlier this year, before fear of the slowing U.S. economy took hold. Consumer spending accounts for almost 70 percent of the economy.

"If you had asked me 4-5 months ago, I think they were much more optimistic," Challenger said, referring to retailers. "We have now had consecutive quarters where the GDP has been revised downwards."

A quarter of the retailers surveyed by the Hay Group said they were hiring fewer seasonal workers this year, while more than two-thirds see seasonal hiring at the same level as last year. Only 10 percent plan to hire more.

The survey included responses from chains including Charlotte Russe, Coldwater Creek <CWTR.O>, DSW <DSW.N>, Macy's <M.N>, Michael's Stores and Pier 1 <PIR.N>. For a graphic on holiday hiring, click

More than a quarter of Americans surveyed by America's Research Group said they planned to spend less this holiday season.

In addition to hard-to-please shoppers, retailers face rising costs of cotton and other raw materials, forcing them to find other ways to save money.

"They are ... looking to sell a lot more product with less promotion and probably with less inventory, which means less product in the store, which means you need less people to help push the product through the store," Craig Rowley, vice president of Hay Group's retail practice, said.

A bigger push to sell online is another reason why retailers are seeking fewer temporary workers in stores during the biggest selling season of the year, retail experts said.

"E-commerce is rocking and rolling, and more and more customers are willing to go online to do their shopping, and more and more retailers are creating a very effective ecommerce strategy," Rowley said. "That is taking some of the sales out of the stores."

Nineteen percent of chains said they will hire fewer seasonal staffers in stores this year due to the increase in their online sales, Hay Group said. This decline may be offset by the 19 percent that say they will hire more seasonal workers in distribution centers to support the uptick in online orders.


Many chains will delay holiday hiring because they can afford to do it.

"Retailers will have the luxury of being very choosy about who they hire because there will be many who want those jobs," Challenger said. "Many retailers wait until they see people in their stores."

"In the past, people would double their staff levels for holiday shopping. We are just not seeing them do that," said Becca Dernberger, vice-president of Manpower's <MAN.N> Northeast Division. "There is a wait and see approach."

Merchants agreed.

"Over the last two years, we have hired seasonal workers a bit later than in previous years," Melissa Childers, manager of corporate recruitment at Crate & Barrel, said.

Merchants have also becoming better at finding other ways to get work done.

"From time to time, they are not on their regular staff, they don't show up on the regular schedules but they come and work holidays and big promotions and help cover vacations, kind of on an on-call basis," Butler said.

(Reporting by Dhanya Skariachan, Phil Wahba, Liana Baker in New York and Jessica Wohl in Chicago; Editing by Richard Chang)