Only a few national retailers are boosting temporary sales forces.
With holiday sales expected to be up only slightly this year, the bulk of the nation's retailers plan to keep seasonal hiring in check as well.
That's dreary news for the nation's unemployed, where even a temporary job can ease the family budget. But the outlook isn't all grim.
Consumers are showing growing confidence in the economy, and retail hiring is off to its strongest start since 2006, according to recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. October's retail payrolls were three times larger than this time last year.
"It suggests that retailers are more optimistic," said John Challenger, CEO of global outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. "They don't want to get caught with customers in stores and not be prepared."
Last year's retail hiring was among the lowest in two decades. Challenger Gray projects that retailers could add as many as 650,000 jobs this holiday season, a 30 percent increase. But some major stores say they plan little or no change in this year's seasonal hiring.
November historically is the strongest month for holiday hiring, so a strong October could be a hopeful sign.
"As you talk to retailers, it doesn't feel like they're just pushing up their hiring earlier and will hire less later," Challenger said. "It feels like a sign of more demand."
Two-year hiring slump
During the past two years, Minnesota retailers have added an average of about 5,000 new seasonal jobs in October, November and December, according to state labor data. That's a pittance compared with the 17,000 average between 1990 and 2007.
The state's employment numbers for October won't come out until Thursday.
If holiday sales projections hold up, Minnesota could see triple the seasonal retail hiring this year compared with the last couple of years, said Steve Hine, labor market research director for the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.
"That's not necessarily the long-term employment prospects that a lot of people are in need of right now, but I know from experience they do help household finances," said Hine, who said his mother often picked up a holiday job to get the store discounts and pay for Christmas shopping.
The National Retail Federation projects a modest increase of 2.3 percent in holiday sales. While that would be a marked improvement over the 0.4 percent gain in 2009, it falls shy of the 10-year historic average of 2.5 percent. With a still-skittish consumer, retailers remain cautious about hiring too many temps.
Wal-Mart and Richfield-based Best Buy will add about the same number of temporary workers as last year. Macy's and J.C. Penney plan a slight uptick. Minneapolis-based Target doesn't release its hiring projections.
Toys 'R' Us and Kohl's are bucking the trend. Toys 'R' Us will take on about 29 percent more holiday workers, mostly to staff its 600 temporary stores.
Kohl's, based in Menomonee Falls, Wis., aims to boost its holiday workforce by 21 percent, adding an average of 35 part-time employees at each store. One analyst suggested that Kohl's is likely to feel confident about the fourth quarter but also may have cut the workforce too close to the bone during the recession.
Several surveys in recent months reinforce the message of measured holiday hiring growth.
About 55 percent of retailers surveyed by Aon Hewitt said they'll hire the same amount, compared with 29 percent who say they'll hire more. Among small businesses and middle-market companies with annual revenues up to $1 billion, however, about two-thirds of top executives plan to hire more holiday workers, according to a CIT Group study.
For Ruth Hiland, a retired social worker at Southwest High School, every little bit helps. She has worked several holidays over the past few years at Creative Kidstuff, using the cash and store discounts to support her travel bug and frequent splurges on her three grandchildren.
"I love the store and the thoughtful way the toys are designed to meet the needs of kids," said Highland, 71, of Richfield. She puts in about 12 to 16 hours a week at the Linden Hills store.
Creative Kidstuff, with seven stores in Minnesota and one in Iowa, will add 50 to 55 people for the holidays to stock shelves, wrap gifts and work the sales floor. That's about the same as previous years, but a 28 percent jump in staffing compared to the rest of the year, said CEO Roberta Bonoff.
"We're pretty consistent," Bonoff said. "When it comes to toys, we need that many people to keep up with the business during the holidays."
Jackie Crosby • 612-673-7335