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Dim outlook for retail hiring as holidays approach

Job seekers hoping the holiday shopping season will bring the gift of a seasonal paycheck may end up with an economic lump of coal if the latest estimates are right.

ST. LOUIS, Mo. - Job seekers hoping the holiday shopping season will bring the gift of a seasonal paycheck may end up with an economic lump of coal if the latest estimates are right.

The question: Will 2009 look like 2003-07, when retailers hired an average of 571,000 workers annually to assist with the holiday rush?

Or will it be a repeat of 2008, when seasonal hires fell 62 percent below the 618,000 workers on holiday payrolls the year before?

For 14.5 million unemployed Americans, not to mention thousands of others hoping to pick up a few extra bucks for presents this December, the answer balances on a single factor: whether the 3.4 percent decline in 2008 holiday spending carries over into 2009.

Would-be employees should know more when the National Retail Federation releases its 2009 spending forecast, a key benchmark for the retail trade, in early October.

But a preliminary outlook isn't good: 69 percent of respondents to a BIG research survey in July said they plan on spending less on holiday shopping this year than last.

"If retailers are not expecting as many people to shop, then they won't bring in as many people to stock the shelves, staff the cash registers and help get the cars out of the parking lot," said NRF spokeswoman Ellen Davis.

As the unofficial start of the holiday shopping season nears, however, major retailers are holding hiring projections tighter than a state secret.

Macy's and Nordstrom, for instance, both say they expect seasonal hiring to stay at 2008 levels. Neither retailer will say how many employees that entails.

It is Macy's policy, said spokeswoman Andrea Schwartz, not to disclose exact employment numbers in either "good times or bad." She said now is the right time to start looking for a holiday job.

A Seattle-based spokesman for Nordstrom said the retailer does not anticipate an increase in seasonal employment at its West County Center outlet. In general, Colin Johnson added, Nordstrom hires part-timers for an annual November sale and retains what it needs through the holidays.

Headway Corporate Resources is one company that isn't shy about disclosing its hiring plans.

The retail staffing firm, located in Raleigh, N.C., has put out a call for 7,300 people to work holiday shifts at Borders bookstores, Hickory Farms and other retail outlets nationwide.

Most of the employees, said Chief Executive Officer J.P. Sakey, will be drawn from the half-million applicants already in the corporation's database.

With the calendar hurtling toward the unofficial start of the holiday shopping season in October, Sakey said fewer spaces - compared with 2008 - are available for the shopping mall kiosks where Headway-staffed businesses sell such merchandise as cell phone accessories.

So retailers should be prepared to staff up quickly if shoppers surprise them.

Sakey says fiercer competition for kiosk space than last year may signal an expectation of higher sales.

"Barring horrible war news, horrible political news or horrible economic news, I think customers are entering" the holiday season "with a lot more confidence than they had last year," Sakey said. "They may not be buying houses or cars, but I think they will be willing to spend $50 to $500 on (holiday) purchases."

If his prophesy comes true, Sakey sees understaffed retailers adding last-minute payroll in the run-up to Christmas. Nordstrom is prepared to do exactly that.

"We'll adjust the work force based on sales," Johnson said.

Davis, the spokeswoman for the National Retail Federation, predicted sales of discounted merchandise could well determine whether the 2009 holiday numbers are ultimately up or down.

Nearly half the shoppers participating in BIGresearch's July consumer survey said they will purchase only sale items this year. Ironically, Davis noted, how much prospective seasonal workers spend may affect the bottom line for retailers.

"There's certainly a Catch-22 when you have this many people looking for holiday jobs for extra money," said Davis. "And if they don't find them, they won't have that money. Which, of course, will lead to retailers hiring fewer people."

The X-factor when it comes to hiring this holiday season, says Sakey, is knowing how many of the nation's unemployed will compete with college students, retirees and part-timers who return to the same job every November and December.

For those inclined to seek a retail job this holiday season, though, Davis promises but one certainty: "The environment is going to be very competitive."

(c) 2009, St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.