- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 16, 2005

‘Tis the season to be hiring. But most retailers already have nearly all their seasonal employees lined up, a few weeks earlier than usual, to help move merchandise before winter heating bills start arriving.

Retailers are worried that home heating bills — which are expected to spike 32 percent this winter — will prompt consumers to stick to their budgets this year.

“Smart retailers have put into place a ‘shop early’ campaign — they put merchandise out early and put discounts out early — to try to get consumers to do their shopping now,” said John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of Chicago outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc. “That translated into earlier seasonal hiring.”

Most retailers had their temporary staff ready Nov. 1, though some were set by the end of October, Mr. Challenger said.

English Trading Co. at Tysons Corner Center was thinking about Christmas help in July, months earlier than last year, said store manager Gail Threet Webb.

“We were just overwhelmed last year,” Mrs. Threet Webb said. “There were tons and tons of people in here. We had folks at the register, but not on the floor.”

Mrs. Webb wants to hire another four to six people — a couple more than last year, she said — to walk the floor and answer customers’ questions about the store’s stock of holiday decorations, cards and nutcracker dolls.

“We’re doing some maneuvering to manage the volume of customers better than last year,” she said.

Williams-Sonoma Inc. advertises on-the-spot job interviews at its Tysons store. The culinary products shop says it’s hard to fill the 15 spots in its temporary holiday work force.

“It’s so difficult to find qualified help in this mall,” said Cheryl, a store coordinator who did not want her last name used. “If someone comes in and appears to be qualified, we like to get the interview done, check the references and hire quickly.”

Further down the concourse, a Radio Shack store will have 16 extra employees for the holidays on top of the eight already employed at the store. The store began hiring in early October, earlier than last year, said Samuel, an assistant manager at the store who did not want his last name printed.

“Last year we experienced a shortage [of employees] so we had to be ready,” he said. “The way Radio Shack operates, a lot of customers come in to look. That individual attention takes a lot of time.”

Retailers need to hire additional employees to keep up with the deluge of customers that flood stores during the winter holiday shopping season. For many retailers, the holiday season accounts for 25 percent to 40 percent of annual sales.

Though the traditional start of holiday shopping — the day after Thanksgiving — is a week away, holiday shopping has already started in some places.

Last week’s sales at retail chain stores were up 3.9 percent over a year ago, just under the 5 percent jump retailers expect in overall holiday sales this year. Sales fell 0.6 percent from the week before, likely because of the warm weather throughout the country, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers, a New York trade group.

Retailers have been bumping up their staffs by about 3 percent each holiday season for the past three years, according to the National Retail Federation.

Last year, retailers hired 524,350 additional employees during the holiday season, according to the District trade group, which does not include auto dealers or restaurants in its figures.

“Obviously this is the busiest time of year — it holds true for us and holds true for most other retailers as well,” said Best Buy spokeswoman Dawn Bryant. “We have a lot of people in the stores and a lot of new products on the shelves and we need them to get the great customer service they receive the rest of the year.”

Best Buy stores will have about 30 to 40 additional employees this season, just as many as last year.

“We began hiring in September and will hire through Thanksgiving. The vast majority are already hired and trained,” Ms.Bryant said.

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