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.

That describes the seven men and women who showed up last week at The Container Store here. All raised their hands when asked if they were regular customers. Some figured they'd be spending so much time shopping at the store during the holidays, they might as well get paid for being there and enjoy a 40% discount on most merchandise and 50% off the store's Elfa shelving systems.

Linda Buchanan, a project management director for a software-development company, is about seven years away from retiring and is considering creative options for retirement. Heather Rostker, a museum exhibit developer by day, lives nearby and would be giving everyone on her list Container Store products — or at least gifts wrapped in Container Store paper — anyway.

Other top choices for seasonal retail workers are high school and college students, senior citizens, stay-at-home mothers and people like Terri Bonanno Hirsh who, despite working a day job at her husband's veterinary clinic, can't seem to get retailing out of her blood. The former manager for stores including CVS, Hit or Miss and, most recently, Williams-Sonoma, says she may return to seasonal work again this year. "The smells and the fun (at Williams-Sonoma) make me want to start again," says Hirsh. "My old boss says I can come back to work seasonal again this year. I think I might."

•Choosing honest people. The dark side of all this holiday cheer is that the shorter an employee's tenure, the more likely he or she will steal, a National Retail Federation study shows. Half of all retail theft is by employees, so seasonal hires are among the riskiest propositions. When turnover rates — which would include seasonal workers — were above the industry average of 68.2%, the theft rate was "substantially above" the industry average of 1.78% of sales.

"Seasonal or part-time individuals … might not have the loyalty," says Joe LaRocca, NRF's vice president of loss prevention. "There are ways to steal money and merchandise from companies and get away with it for short periods of time."

Background checks and public record searches are being used more frequently than they used to be for seasonal workers, LaRocca says. Retailers also are using technology that can analyze cash register transaction information to quickly detect internal theft.

•Training on the fly. Both workers and customers often complain about lack of training for seasonal workers. The Container Store puts seasonal employees through as much training as any other hires, about 20 hours.

Underhill, a first-year high school teacher who says low pay and student loan debt prompted his decision to apply at Container Store, is a former manager at Abercrombie & Fitch. But he's told he'll be trained on Container Store sales strategy, which includes suggesting necessary supplies so busy shoppers don't have to return because they forgot, say, tape.

Teachers make great holiday-season employees, says Dan Butler, NRF vice president of retail operations and merchandising. "They understood the material being taught in the training class, learned whatever they had to learn on the computer quickly, and helped bring others along in the class," he says.

"Retailers need to get people on the floor selling and answering customer questions as fast as possible, so it's difficult to set aside that time" for training, says labor and employment lawyer Jeff Tanenbaum of Nixon Peabody. But retailers who don't provide enough training about customer service and cash registers are going to "start getting disgruntled customers and disgruntled employees, as well. Most people become progressively uncomfortable doing things they're not good at."

•Explaining the retail life. The first question Butler says he always had about prospective holiday workers when he managed department stores was "have they worked in retail?" If they had, they typically understood that they can't take a week or two off in the middle of their five-week stint.

Kevin Postell, one of two ebullient managers conducting the Container Store interview, tells the group that, if hired, they would get Christmas day off but otherwise be needed weekends and nights, including Christmas Eve.

"We all love our families, too, but we have a family here that we need to provide for as well," says Postell, who started as a seasonal hire four years ago.

Butler says people who haven't worked in retailing often don't understand the late-night demands or "how taxing it can be to be on their feet on marble floors all day." Postell tells his group: "This is the last time you'll be sitting, so enjoy it."

Many seasonal workers are lured by the discounts, which typically range from 20% to 40% off merchandise, and some will quit after the stress starts getting to them and they've done their holiday shopping, former retail managers say. That's prompted some retailers to delay giving the discount until close to the end of the seasonal stint.

"As you got into the Christmas season, the challenge was keeping them through the Christmas season," says Brown, now a retail strategist with the global consulting firm Kurt Salmon Associates.

Retail salespeople can't be cranky

Retail sales requires people who are friendly and flexible "but respectful and willing to engage a supervisor when it is appropriate," says Robert Hogan, who runs the personality testing and consulting company firm Hogan Assessment Systems. Being reliable, dependable and having a "good appearance is always a plus" too, he says.

Hogan says important scores on his personality test for retail sales would be for traits such as sociability, prudence and interpersonal sensitivity and adjustment "so that they can handle stress and pressure."

"One cranky person can just cost you tons of money in immediate and long-term sales," Hogan says. "They are the face of the organization."

Kelly Spradley of Zionsville, Ind., worked as a seasonal worker in the '90s for the former Lazarus chain and found the job hard to take in large part because the hours were "terrible." She already had a day job, so she would start her weekday shifts at 5 p.m. and work until 11 p.m. or midnight. If it was a Friday night, she was usually scheduled to open the store the next morning at 7 a.m. "That was my last experience in retail," she says. "I doubt that I'll ever return."

"One of the most enjoyable jobs I ever had," says Dana Kalal of Southlake, Texas, who used to manage Hickory Farms mall kiosks in Texas during the holiday season. "Employees wanted hours, and everyone knew they could sleep in January. And there were minimal employee conflicts, because you can stand anyone for three months."

Polly Kruse worked as a seasonal worker at Williams-Sonoma in Denver in the 1990s and was drawn in large part by the 40% discount that applied to all of the company's divisions, including Pottery Barn.

"I would definitely work in retail again," she says. "Not only did I walk away from the job with some great discounted merchandise, but I was able to learn a lot about cooking and entertaining. Not a lot of retail stores allow you to transfer your skills from work home with you and apply them to everyday life and vice versa."

The Container Store is one of them. Close to half of the full-time staff described themselves as regular customers, which the retailer believes is one of its keys to success.

"Customers are our greatest evangelists and ambassadors," Priest says. "Recruiting is one big public relations opportunity."

Ever been a department store Santa? Worked a Black Friday? Wrapped or stocked amid the biggest crowds of the retail year? Tell us about your part-time holiday job experiences.