Holiday jobs: Stores' fervid fans ready for blue-collar Christmas

Seven people are sitting in a circle confessing some of their innermost secrets. Bonnie Lindberg says she's filled all of her homes' closets with the stuff. Eric Underhill says, "I practically live here." And Leslie Wilson notes, somewhat sheepishly, that she's "addicted to it."

It could be an Organizer's Anonymous meeting, but it's a group interview for holiday jobs at The Container Store here. The organization and storage retailer is looking for hundreds of good customers — up to 20 per store — to join what marketing chief Casey Priest calls their "yummy culture" for a few months this holiday season. Judging by the enthusiasm on a recent evening, that won't be hard. The 40-location Container Store gets about 30,000 employment applications throughout the year and hires just 6% of all applicants.

Retailers are gearing up for their busiest season and most vexing of holiday challenges — hiring help to ring up all those sales. Stores across the USA are expected to add up to 600,000 people to their employment rolls between now and December. Target tgt alone will hire 50,000 to 80,000 seasonal workers. The Container Store plans to hire about 1,000 workers this year, up from about 800 last year.

Retail staffs increase an average of 5% during the holidays, but some stores boost their employee rolls by as much as 50% — a number to keep in mind when you encounter befuddled or blank stares at the cash register.

With retail sales expected to rise a modest 4% this year, the number of seasonal hires is expected to drop again, after a dip in 2006. Most retailers are being especially conservative about holiday hiring this year, relying whenever possible on existing staff and increasing their reliance on temporary agency workers whom they can simply let go when sales slow.

But even if there are fewer jobs to fill, it can be difficult to find people who will work until midnight as Christmas nears and give up the two-month job altogether once New Year's comes. Add to that a need for someone with no criminal background, who isn't simply between jobs, who will show up on time and keep showing up, and you've described one of the most daunting tasks that faces retail managers.

Michael Brown, who managed several Abraham & Strauss stores while at Federated Department Stores until 1996, says it's easier for some retailers to attract and keep good seasonal workers. Brown says stores with passionate customers and loyal customer bases, such as high-end department stores and discounters Target and Wal-Mart, wmt tend to do well. The midlevel stores, such as J.C. Penney's jcp and Kohl's kss, don't tend to have the same kind of fervid followers, he says.

Other retail hurdles:

•Finding good people. Most of the workers they'd really want are already working in retailing or are otherwise gainfully employed. Target tries to interview prospective hires the day they apply so they don't get snatched up by a competitor, says Dave Caspers, Northeast regional vice president for stores and human resources.

"Seasonal hiring can be extremely competitive due to the sheer volume of people needed," Caspers says. "We start planning months in advance."

Retailers say they typically want someone who already knows and likes their merchandise and store. Target relies on referrals from employees and previous years' seasonal workers whenever possible. That and people who are "in love with" the retailer, Caspers says.

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