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As Black Friday creeps closer, the staff at Creative Kidstuff toy store will swell from 140 to 230 workers.
"We will hire more than we did last year," said Happi Olson, sales and marketing manager. "We are excited about the holidays. I do think it is going to be a strong year [given] what we have seen in the first half."
Other retailers aren't so sure. Volatile markets, a slowing economy, waning consumer confidence and stubbornly high unemployment rates are making holiday hiring predictions more difficult this year.
"Retailers are seeing several signs that consumer spending is dipping just as they are beginning to make decisions about how many workers to add for the upcoming holidays. This does not bode well for job seekers," said John Challenger, CEO of employment firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas Inc. "It would be surprising if holiday hiring exceeded last year's level."
U.S. retail employment grew by 627,600 jobs from October through December 2010. That was a welcome leap from the paltry 231,000 jobs added during the dismal holiday season in 2008, which proved to be the worst retail year since 1982.
No one expects a rewind to 1982. But there is no industry consensus on prospects for this year. The Minnesota Retailers Association, for example, is predicting that holiday hiring gains will simply match last year's. Meanwhile, the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC) expects seasonal hiring could grow another 2 percent beyond last year, said Michael Niemira, the association's chief economist.
Dave Brennan, who co-directs the Institute for Retailing Excellence and teaches marketing at the University of St. Thomas, said he won't be surprised to see retailers play it conservative when hiring seasonal workers this year.
"I think there is just too much uncertainty," Brennan said. "There is uncertainty in terms of unemployment, uncertainty as far as the stock market, and the biggest uncertainty is if Congress pushes through big budget cuts," he said. "But we won't know that until at least November. And I think that is going to put a wet blanket on retailers."
The U.S. Commerce Department recently reported lackluster retail sales for August and revised July results downward. Separately, the ICSC forecast 2.2 percent sales growth for its members for November and December -- less than half the 5 percent gain seen for the 2010 period.
Olson at Creative Kidstuff and other retailers try to remain positive.
"Honestly, we don't even think about that. We can't," she said. "We just keep doing what we are doing and try to be as profitable as we can."
Minnesota's retail, wholesale, transportation and utilities employment categories increased by 12,400 jobs in August on a year-over-year basis. Economists expect employment in the sector to increase as the holidays approach.
Target's "hiring process is already underway in some markets. And we will be continuing to hire up through Thanksgiving," said spokeswoman Molly Snyder. "Last year we hired more than 92,000 seasonal team members and we do expect that this year that number will be slightly higher."
Toys R Us already has its online Christmas ads for Lalaloopsy Dolls, Lego Ninjago sets, guitar jamming Elmos and other critters. It's also in the midst of a hiring monsoon after opening a new distribution center in Nevada and beefing up online and store service. The company said Wednesday that it will hire more than 40,000 people this holiday season.
"We are hiring seasonal employees for the holiday season, and the number is in line with previous years," said Meghan Kennedy, Toys R Us spokeswoman.
Seasonal hiring is not just for discount retailers.
Select Comfort, which makes adjustable air beds, also is hiring. So far this year, the company has hired 700 workers, which is 10 percent ahead of last year, said spokeswoman Sarah Reckard.
Patina, the snazzy Twin Cities gift boutique, is locked in the middle of an unusual period. It's not only preparing for Christmas, but opening a new store in Golden Valley in October and reopening its 50th and Bryant Av. S Minneapolis store next week. That store was destroyed by fire last year.
While each Patina store usually has 20 full- and part-time workers, the owners are adding at least 10 new staffers to cover the busy holidays.
"It will be the same path as last year. ... But we are projecting growth this year," said Patina co-owner Rick Haase. "We are hoping it's going to be a good season."
What about fragile markets and an uncertain economy?
"I just try to put my head down and do what we do," Haase said. "We are just trying to do our best, whatever that ends up being."
Officials at electronics retail-behemoth Best Buy insisted that holiday hiring and inventory stockpiling are proceeding full steam ahead.
Best Buy has made it a point to avoid "making any material reductions in our store labor," Best Buy Executive Vice President Michael Vitelli recently told Wall Street analysts. The big-box retailer has ramped up staffing in gaming, computers, tablets and cell phones.
"All of the places where we're seeing the growth, that's where we're putting our labor," Vitelli said.
Dee DePass • 612-673-7725