The signs are front-and-center across the Mall of America.
At the entrance to Macy’s, a chic white table is stacked with flashy postcards to encourage people to apply for work there.
“Join our Team!” calls a sign in the window at Hollister. “Now hiring awesome people,” says the message at the Air Traffic toy store. At Sears, open positions are listed on red and green paper graced with a perky image of Santa.
The war for workers is kicking into high gear as retailers seek to pump up their workforce amid the tightest labor market in a generation.
Stores are offering seasonal wages once reserved for full-time workers and designing special perks they hope will set them apart from competitors. “Retailers are really having to fight to get the best employees in the door for their holiday hiring needs — and their needs are large,” said Andrew Challenger, vice president of the hiring firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.
Buoyed by strong earnings and confident consumers, retailers have announced plans to hire more than 704,000 seasonal workers this year, according to Challenger, the highest tally since the firm began tracking the numbers in 2012.
Target Corp. says it needs 120,000 seasonal workers to handle the holidays, the most of any brick-and-mortar chain in the country and about 20 percent more than last year.
Richfield-based Best Buy, which doesn’t announce holiday hiring numbers, is planning its first in-store job fair in several years, a spokesman said, and hopes to turn many of its holiday hires into year-round employees.
Recruiting for seasonal workers started early and in earnest. The number of companies that began recruiting in August or earlier more than doubled compared with last year, according to Snag, an hourly wage hiring platform. Kohl’s, which wants to add 90,000 seasonal workers this holiday season, started even earlier — in July.
Kohl’s also plans to serve turkey dinner to Thanksgiving workers and allow employees what it described as an “unprecedented” single shopping day discount of 35 percent.
J.C. Penney, which also began wooing workers in July, is offering 25 percent discounts and a raffle for eight employees to win a $5,000 trip to New York City, Miami or Alberta.
Target has set aside $2 million for perks that include doling out $500 gift cards for a worker at every store on top of discounts as high as 20 percent on some merchandise.
It’s not just the giant chain stores that are feeling the labor pinch.
Patina, an independent retailer with eight locations in the metro area, has started recruiting younger workers and for the first time attended a job fair at the University of Minnesota.
“We’ve had to rethink and be a little more creative in who and how we hire,” said Karin Tappero, Patina’s district manager, who wants to add about 50 temporary workers for the holidays.
The company already has started calling its reliable stable of returnees, some of whom have worked holidays for a decade, to nail down commitments. Managers also have become increasingly flexible on schedules to accommodate workers who have full-time jobs elsewhere. It sweetens the pie with a 40 percent employee discount.
“It’s a challenging time for hiring, but I’m optimistic,” Tappero said. “We are a last-minute destination for everyone in the Twin Cities. We are ready and we need to be ready because that’s what people expect from us.”
With low unemployment, pay may end up being more of a factor than perks.
Amazon blew past the field when it announced earlier this month that all workers would start at $15 an hour beginning Nov. 1.
Target, which announced starting pay at $12 an hour starting Sept. 16, hadn’t planned to hit $15 until 2020.
“It was a really aggressive move by Amazon,” Challenger said. “It’s hard to imagine that other retailers aren’t going to have to compete on wages to some degree.”
To handle the holiday rush, Amazon plans to hire 100,000 workers, including more than 1,000 employees at facilities around the Twin Cities and 450 at a new sorting center in Brooklyn Park.
A Target spokeswoman declined to say whether it might kick up its wages to compete with Amazon. The Minneapolis-based retailer, which is looking to hire 10,000 seasonal workers in Minnesota, has increased last year’s hourly wage by a dollar, and so far that’s enough to edge out Walmart, where seasonal workers start at $11 an hour.
Wage pressures were growing even before the move by Amazon. Snag’s annual survey showed that retailers expected hourly pay to jump by as much as 54 percent this year.
Much of that has to do with the changing nature of retail. As more shoppers order online and opt to have items shipped to the store or their front door, retailers’ backroom operations are changing.
Mass merchants still need cashiers, salespeople and shelf stockers. But they need more people to package orders for store pickup and to work in warehouses and distribution centers, which increasingly requires more technology skills.
Target is doubling the number of staff it needs to handle digital orders. Macy’s, which is hiring about the same number as last year, will shift its mix and add 5,500 more people for its fulfillment centers. Best Buy says it, too, will bulk up on workers to package up online orders.
Retailers’ shipping needs add to competition for packaging and freight jobs. Federal Express Ground plans to hire 2,200 seasonal workers in St. Paul, while UPS wants to add more than 1,700 people at its five facilities in the Twin Cities.
Failing to get the right staff in place could have a lasting impact. Many retailers get most of their annual profits during the November through January shopping season. Shoppers will have little patience with wandering the aisles in search of a helpful salesclerk or waiting in a chaotic line to pick up their already paid-for online orders.
“These big retailers are vulnerable,” Challenger said. “If the consumer goes to the store and there’s a long line and it takes an hour to get through checkout, they’re going to be much more likely to go to Amazon next time. Retailers are going to lose market share.”