This holiday shopping season may be ho-hum for some people looking for a job as a temporary retail worker.
At least that’s according to the National Retail Federation, which expects seasonal retail employment to fall by 25,000 jobs to 550,000 this year.
“With retail employment already up recently, retailers are seeing less of a need to hire seasonal workers for the holidays this year,” the trade group said in its holiday spending forecast released in October. That forecast predicts that holiday retail sales in November and December — excluding automobiles, gasoline and restaurants — will increase between 3.6 and 4 percent for a total of $678.75 billion to $682 billion, up from $655.8 billion last year.
Higher retail employment earlier this year could be one reason for fewer seasonal hires. It could also be that brick-and-mortar retailers don’t need as many temporary workers this holiday season because of online shopping.
Faced with an improving economy with fewer unemployed people, some companies like Walmart are opting to use the workforce it already has to get it through the season. Others are recruiting seasonal workers at their typical levels and are mostly seeing success filling those jobs.
But at least one company says a tighter labor market is making it more difficult to find seasonal workers. And it’s having to pay up in order to find sufficient staffing for the holidays.
Doing more with less
Walmart, the country’s largest retailer, is scaling back the number of temporary workers it traditionally hires for the holiday season.
“To help customers save time and money this season, we are offering the extra hours available this time of year to our current associates rather than hiring thousands of seasonal workers,” said Judith McKenna, chief operating officer for Walmart U.S., in an e-mailed statement.
This is the second year in a row the retailer has approached holiday staffing this way, said Walmart spokesman Blake Jackson. And it’s not just about saving customers money. He said it’s also because regular employees have received extensive training on new approaches to customer service and shopping processes in the past couple of years. That can’t be conveyed to workers who are with Walmart for just a couple of months.
“There is benefit in having continuity, people executing on that proficiency with new tools in the store, a new shopping process for customers,” Jackson said.
There are exceptions, though, and if a store can’t fill its needs with its regular employees, it can hire seasonal help.
“There will be a few locations where we hire seasonal help, based on need,” he said. “But by and large, we’re offering the extra hours to current associates.”
Tight labor supply
The rising popularity of shopping online could also have an effect on seasonal retail employment. That’s because online-only retailers require far fewer employees than brick-and-mortar retailers.
The Internet is the top destination where holiday shoppers expect to make purchases this year, according to NRF’s annual holiday shopping consumer survey. Fifty-nine percent of the 7,349 consumers it surveyed in the first half of October said they would do their shopping online, a first in the survey’s 13-year history, NRF said.
One of the benefactors of increasing online shopping are package delivery companies such as UPS Inc. They, like many traditional retailers, ramp up their staffing with seasonal workers during the holiday season.
UPS said last month it expects to deliver more than 750 million packages globally between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve, which would be about 5 percent higher than the same period in 2016.
But finding seasonal help has been tougher for UPS, especially in the past two years, said spokesman Dan McMackin. He attributes that to lower unemployment in the U.S.
That’s why the Atlanta-based company has offered hiring bonuses to its seasonal help this year and last. The bonuses can amount to as much as an extra $200 a week in some locations, McMackin said.
“It is definitely tighter for the past three years or so and we have had the bonuses in for the past two years,” he said in an e-mail. “We are definitely seeing low unemployment and we are competing with many other companies for a limited number of applicants.”
The U.S. unemployment rate was 4.2 percent in September, down from an already low rate of 4.6 percent last September, according to the most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In the Wichita area, the September unemployment rate was 4.0 percent, down from 4.7 percent last September, according to the Kansas Department of Labor.
Local job openings
It’s not clear if or how a tighter labor market is affecting large retailers here and across the country.
J.C. Penney spokesman Joey Thomas said in an e-mail the department store chain held its first-ever National Hiring Day on Oct. 17 to fill 40,000 positions — 450 in Wichita — and had 30,000 applicants.
Thomas did not quantify how many applicants it had in Wichita, nor if it had increased its pay or perks for seasonal workers.
“We were very encouraged by the response … and we’ll continue to hire associates throughout the season,” Thomas said.
According to Penney’s jobs website, jcpcareers.com, on Wednesday it had 29 open jobs in Wichita, six of them seasonal positions.
Another department store chain, Kohl’s, also held a national hiring event for seasonal workers last month. The company did not say how many seasonal jobs it was hiring for at its 1,100 stores nationwide nor its three stores in Wichita and Derby.
Kohl’s spokeswoman Jacquelyn Judkins would not answer questions about the effect of a tight labor market on seasonal hiring. She instead referred to its Sept. 28 holiday hiring news release.
“Nothing additional to share outside of this at this time,” she said in an e-mail.
According to its seasonal jobs website on Wednesday, Kohl’s had 415 seasonal job openings nationwide, including two at its east Wichita store.