Retailers this season won't hire more holiday workers than they did last year, when the number of temporary workers brought onboard reached a 12-year high, according to a new forecast.
Instead, the Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc. consultancy said stores and distribution centers will probably add roughly 665,800 workers to their headcounts, with the bulk of hires being made in October.
At best, companies can hope to match their hiring levels from 2012, when 751,800 workers joined their ranks between Oct. 1 and Dec. 31, the consultancy said.
Last year's surge, a 14% upswing from 2011, was also the fourth straight annual increase in holiday hiring since 2008. That year, the 324,900 workers added to payrolls represented the smallest holiday employment boost in nearly three decades.
In an uneasy retail environment, consumer confidence is wavering – a recent report from Thomson Reuters and the University of Michigan showed sentiment at its lowest level since April. And projections from ShopperTrak show the lowest holiday sales increase since the recession.
Still, the holiday season accounts for some 20% of each year's retail sales, and crowds tend to be overwhelming. Many retailers are already trying to get a jump on the season by implementing holiday strategies, hauling in Christmas trees and running ads starring gingerbread men.
On Monday, Wal-Mart said it would hire 55,000 seasonal associates while transitioning 35,000 current temporary workers to part-time status and moving another 35,000 employees from part-time to full-time.
Last year, the mega-chain said it would add more than 50,000 holiday workers.
Kohl's said this month that it will hire 53,000 workers to handle demand through the end of the year – a comparable figure to last year.
But Target said it will hire 70,000 seasonal employees – 20% fewer than in 2012. The retailer said it wanted to give existing workers the chance to claim extra holiday working hours.
"The fact is that retailers are getting smarter about staffing," said John A. Challenger, chief executive of the Challenger consultancy. "The era of Big Data has armed everyone with the information they need to more accurately predict the ebbs and flows in sales activity and adjust hiring accordingly."
The expected overall slide in holiday hiring could also be a consequence of hiring pushes made earlier in the year, the group said. Retailers took on 482,000 employees between March and August this year, up 42% from the same period in 2012.
And as more consumers turn to the Web to hunt for discounts on products that will often arrive tax-free with no delivery charges, Challenger expects retailers to boost headcounts at their distribution and customer service facilities – to a point.
"The ongoing shift to Internet shopping could see some seasonal hiring in this area, but the numbers will never match the employment gains seen in traditional brick-and-mortar establishments," Challenger said.