Cautiously optimistic about the approaching holiday season, the nation's retailers have begun their annual hunt for part-time workers and seasonal help. And with nationwide unemployment at 8.1% in August, there is no shortage of applicants.
Just ask Mirna Galeana, who is already searching for some holiday work hours to supplement her part-time job as an after-school program leader with the Los Angeles Unified School District.
"It would be nice to have money for gifts, but it's not even about that. I need money to pay for my rent and my car," the 25-year-old said while picking up job applications at Macy's and Victoria's Secret stores in downtown Los Angeles.
In recent days, big retail chains have been announcing plans to boost their seasonal hiring somewhat. Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Kohl's Inc. and Toys R Us Inc. weighed in last week with plans to increase hiring. And on Monday, Macy's Inc. said it would enlist 80,000 seasonal workers, up 2.5% from last year.
Now the National Retail Federation is estimating that U.S. retailers overall will hire between 585,000 and 625,000 seasonal workers this holiday season, about the same as the 607,000 hired last year.
"The numbers are a good indication that retailers are expecting increases in foot traffic this year. They wouldn't hire if they didn't feel the need for the extra staff," said Kathy Grannis, a spokeswoman for the trade group. "They're a good indication that retailers are feeling positive overall about holiday season expectations."
The trade group also expects holiday sales to increase to $586.1 billion this year, up 4.1% compared with last year's holiday season — a greater rise than the 10-year average holiday-sales increase of 3.5%.
Retailers increase their staffing every year from October through December, hiring people to work in call centers, distribution centers and stores during the busy holiday season. As the retailers extend store hours for holiday shoppers, they need to beef up staffing to assist customers, ring up purchases and restock merchandise.
For workers, the holiday season can be a crazed time, shoppers and merchants agree. Yvonne DeBoer of Bellflower said she's familiar with the demands of working retail during the Christmas season after spending a few years at big-box stores. But after being unemployed for three months, the 55-year-old is ready to handle whatever comes her way.
"Right now's a good time because I can get my foot in the door" for a longer-term position, she said as she applied for a job at Wal-Mart. "I can't live on my savings forever."
The current national hiring projections for this year are still skimpy compared with the pre-recession days. Between 2004 and 2007, companies hired an average of 722,000 additional workers each holiday season, according to consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc. Still, with the struggling economy and the state's unemployment rate at 10.7%, job seekers are adopting a "take what you can get" attitude.
In Los Angeles County, the number of retail jobs tend to shoot up in the months before Christmas. The state's Employment Development Department reported that retail employment in the county swelled by 18,200 jobs between October and December of last year.
The trend is evident this year as well.
"Generally speaking, we're seeing growth across the retail board," said Juan Millan, a labor market expert for the state.
DeBoer, the Bellflower woman, was among a crowd of job seekers at a Wal-Mart hiring center in Downey last week. They were applying for jobs at a new Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market in Downey, but they also were given the option of applying for seasonal work at other Wal-Mart stores.
Ezekel Ferguson of Los Angeles was there. He said he'd thought he could weather the economic downturn as a manager at McDonald's but lost that job five months ago.
"They laid me off after seven years. I feel like I'm 16 again," the 22-year-old said. He couldn't estimate the number of applications he has filled out, but vowed to remain confident and open to all opportunities: "It's hard right now to come across a good job, but how can you be picky for something you don't have?"
Many job seekers remain hopeful that seasonal jobs will lead to something more permanent.
"To me, 'seasonal' is what I call 'a way in.' Once they see you're a good worker and judge your work ethic, you could get hired on past the holidays," said Theodore White, 25, who waited at the hiring center with Ferguson.
Overall, Wal-Mart said it is hiring more than 50,000 seasonal associates nationwide for the holiday shopping season and more than 500 permanent workers to staff new stores opening in the Southland this year. Stores in Altadena and downtown Los Angeles are expected to be staffed by year's end.
"We know many customers are continuing to struggle as a result of the economy and high unemployment levels, but they have shown us that they're resilient," said Gisel Ruiz, executive vice president of Wal-Mart U.S. "We hope that every customer who shops at Wal-Mart this Christmas will be able to add a few more gifts under the tree. By offering more hours and more jobs, we hope our associates can do the same."