NEW YORK | The holiday hiring picture looks a bit merrier this year.
Macy's, Toys R Us, Pier 1, American Eagle Outfitters and Borders all plan to hire more temporary holiday workers this year than last, emboldened by several months of sales gains and a slowly improving economy.
The jobs probably won't be enough to make a dent in the nation's nearly 10 percent unemployment rate, but for Americans desperate for work, they're far more than an early Christmas present.
"I'm trying to do anything at this point," said Nancy Hoagland, who was laid off from her marketing job in May and has been working part time as a cashier at a golf club near her home in Littleton, Colo., to pay the bills.
On hearing that stores might add more jobs this holiday season, she said she might stop by Kohl's department store on the way home to request an application.
"My husband and I could be facing foreclosure if we don't get [steady employment] secured in the next couple of months. I've never faced anything like that in my life," she said.
Retailers will add between 550,000 and 650,000 jobs this holiday season, according to an updated forecast from the national outsourcing firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., said spokesman James Pedderson. That's significantly more than the 501,400 added last year but still well below the 720,800 added in 2007, just before the recession began.
The holidays are crucial to retailers, accounting for 40 percent of annual sales in some cases. Retailers have seen modest sales gains in recent months, easing fears of a double-dip recession. Another positive sign: Americans' incomes have risen slightly but steadily this year.
It's not clear whether those bright spots will offset pessimism among shoppers. Sales are still far below pre-recession levels, and consumer confidence is at its lowest point since February.
Most retailers plan to hire more workers or the same number as last year, according to a survey of 20 major U.S. retailers, including J.C. Penney Co., Abercrombie & Fitch Co., and Pier 1 Imports.
"In general, it looks more positive than we had anticipated," said Maryam Morse, a national retail practice leader at Philadelphia-based consulting firm Hay Group, which conducted the survey.
Retail analysts have predicted that Americans will spend 1 percent to 3 percent more this holiday season — less than the 4 percent year-to-year growth when the economy was healthier but better than nothing as far as the stores are concerned.
Some of them are being aggressive to take advantage. Toys R Us, for example, is hiring 10,000 more seasonal workers than it did last year to staff 600 temporary stores it is opening for the holidays. Many of those stores are in shopping malls that were left without toy stores after KB Toys went out of business in 2008.
Others are making more modest adjustments. Macy's recently said it was increasing seasonal hiring slightly to about 65,000 because it expects better holiday revenue than last year, though it wouldn't specify how many more it was.
Pier 1, American Eagle and Borders also said they are slightly increasing their seasonal staff this year. Other big chains, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Best Buy Co., expect hiring to be flat.