For the big-box home improvement chains, Christmas is coming. And that means spring hiring season.

Home Depot said Tuesday it will hire nearly 1,000 part-time seasonal workers for its 32 Minnesota stores, including 700 workers in its 20 Twin Cities stores, to handle the annual spring crush of business that appears to portend a pickup in home improvement projects as well.

Nationally, Home Depot said it plans to hire 60,000 seasonal workers (about the same as last year) and has increased its permanent workforce by several thousand year-over-year for the second year in a row.

"Spring is our Christmas," said Jen King, a spokeswoman for the Atlanta-based company.

Lowe's Companies Inc. said Tuesday that it will hire about 50,000 temporary workers this spring, up from 43,000 last year, a 16 percent increase.

That follows Lowe's announcement two weeks ago that it would hire 8,000 to 10,000 additional permanent part-time employees, or four to eight per store, to increase its sales force on weekends, the peak sales days. The company, based in Mooresville, N.C., has 1,725 stores, including 13 in Minnesota.

The big-box home-and-garden retailers hope strong spring sales will put consumers in a home-improvement frame of mind. "The customer's view of the home has changed," King said. "They're doing fewer big projects but more smaller ones. They're staying in their home longer and doing things to make it enjoyable and more livable."

Wall Street seems to agree with the home-improvement retailers. J.P. Morgan issued an analyst report on Home Depot at the end of 2010 titled "Looking real good in '11." Goldman Sachs recently upped Home Depot's target price from $37 to $42 a share.

"Home Depot is no longer swimming upstream," wrote J.P. Morgan analyst Christopher Horvers. But analysts still have doubts about the extent of a recovery, if one exists, in the housing sector. "Our contention simply is that the near-term housing weakness will still make sales growth tough to come by," said David Strasser of Janney Capital Markets. Strasser has a neutral rating on Lowe's.

Springtime 'Black Friday'

Spring typically is an upbeat time for the home improvement business. "That is when our customers come in the stores," said Lowe's spokeswoman Katie Cody. Lowe's will offer its outlook for spring sales during its fourth-quarter earnings announcement next week, Cody said.

In November, the company predicted total sales would increase 3 to 4 percent this year, with a 1 to 2 percent comparable store sales increase. In a sign of the times, a Lowe's survey last year found that 43 percent of customers said they planned to spend on home improvements only when absolutely necessary.

Menard Inc., based in Eau Claire, Wis., had no immediate comment on its outlook for spring hiring and sales.

In the past, consumers took out home-equity loans to finance remodeling projects and home additions, but with that source of money scarce, homeowners are doing what they can with their own two hands.

"They come in and say, 'Teach me how to fix a toilet,' because they don't want to pay a plumber," King said. "They're doing more repair and maintenance themselves. They're doing their own landscaping. They want to lower the cost of operating a home."

"Black Friday" is a term used by retailers to describe the day after Thanksgiving when Christmas shopping hits a roar.

The temporary workers at Home Depot will be hired in time for the store's annual spring "Black Friday," which includes "door-busting" sales on spring items ranging from patio sets to lawn and garden goods.

Black Friday will be spread over four weekends in March and April "depending on climate and geography," King said. For competitive reasons, King would not say which weekends would host the Black Friday event but did acknowledge that spring arrives in Minnesota a little later than some other states.

David Phelps • 612-673-7269 David Shaffer • 612-673-7090