'Tis Not The Season For Retail Jobs

L.L. Bean's flagship store attracts shoppers. i i

hide captionLike many retailers nationwide, L.L. Bean has cut back on its holiday hiring. Its flagship store has been a lure for shopping in Freeport, Maine.

Joel Page/AP
L.L. Bean's flagship store attracts shoppers.

Like many retailers nationwide, L.L. Bean has cut back on its holiday hiring. Its flagship store has been a lure for shopping in Freeport, Maine.

Joel Page/AP
An L.L. Bean "picker" collects items for an order. i i

hide captionAn L.L. Bean "picker" selects items to fill an order at the distribution center in Freeport, Maine, in this November 2006 file photo. The company has cut back on its holiday hiring.

Pat Wellenbach/AP
An L.L. Bean "picker" collects items for an order.

An L.L. Bean "picker" selects items to fill an order at the distribution center in Freeport, Maine, in this November 2006 file photo. The company has cut back on its holiday hiring.

Pat Wellenbach/AP

This year, it may be just as hard to find a holiday job in retail as it is to find that perfect present. Weak consumer confidence and the slowing economy are pointing to a lackluster, if not dismal, holiday shopping season. While retailers may slash prices to attract buyers, they're also slashing seasonal hires.

That's tough news for many Americans, like Carla Yount of South Portland, Maine. She looks forward to the holidays to supplement her regular job as a technical writer. Last year, the outdoor-gear retailer L.L. Bean hired her as a "picker," "where you take the orders when they come in off the shelves," Yount explains. "Pick them, literally, and then send them on to shipping."

Yount earned a little more than $10 an hour and got plenty of overtime, too. During peak sales, the company let her arrive early and stay later.

Another fringe benefit was the employee discount. "A lot of my family and friends got L.L. Bean things last year," Yount says, laughing. "It was a great perk, to be able to do that. It was fun."

Trimming Holiday Staff

But this year, there's little fun to be had. When Yount first looked online in September, all of the company's holiday jobs were already gone.

L.L. Bean is only hiring 5,400 seasonal workers — down from 7,000 last year — to handle the sales increase that arrives with the holidays. Company spokeswoman Carolyn Beem says worsening consumer confidence is forcing managers to be cautious about sales.

"We also want to make sure it's a meaningful employment experience for those seasonals [who] do come back ... to make sure they have the hours that it makes sense for them," Beem says.

Retailers nationwide are scaling back on holiday hires. A recent SnagAJob.com survey of 1,000 American managers who hire hourly workers finds that the average manager plans to hire roughly 33 percent fewer seasonal workers compared with last year's holiday period.

Demand For Seasonal Work Rises

Those managers are seeing more applicants, because demand is increasing for those limited holiday shifts. The Milwaukee-based employment agency Manpower Inc. says people looking for temporary holiday jobs are facing the tightest market since 1991.

Tom Kochan, a work force economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management, says a shaky economy scares people into looking for second jobs.

"One, they want to have a fallback if the first one goes away," Kochan says. "And, secondly, they want to supplement their income. The problem is they're trying to do that at exactly the time that second jobs are scarce."

That's particularly unfortunate in Maine, where many people in the fishing and tourism industries have more time on their hands during the winter. Scaled-back seasonal work at the state's signature retailer is especially troublesome.

Yount says that in Maine, "if you talk to 10 people, half of them have probably worked at Bean part time, full time, whatever."

Ironically, Yount is contributing to the same consumer behavior that's keeping her from finding holiday work in retail. The uncertain economy is prompting her to clamp down on her own spending.

"It's kind of a vicious cycle," Yount says wistfully. "We all need to have maybe a little confidence, and maybe it would get better for everyone."

Curt Nickisch reports for member station WBUR.

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