LIANE HANSEN, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.
Autumn begins this week, and while you may be thinking about apple cider and falling leaves, retailers are thinking about payrolls and the number of workers they should hire to prepare for the holiday shopping season. Last year, stores added about a half-million seasonal workers. And while that number was up by nearly a third after the disastrous fall of 2008, hiring was weak compared with pre-recession days.
Here to discuss the outlook for this year's holiday season is NPR senior business editor Marilyn Geewax. Marilyn, welcome back.
MARILYN GEEWAX: Oh, it's good to be here, Liane.
HANSEN: Will there be a lot of retail hiring this fall?
GEEWAX: Well, compared with 2008, this actually will be a pretty good year for people who want to work in retail stores. The other day, I spoke with John Challenger(ph). He heads a firm that studies hiring trends, and he said that retailers are on track this year to add maybe 100,000 more seasonal workers than they did last year. He expects to see that kind of payroll growth because stores are starting to see some sales growth again.
Both in July and August, retail sales did tick up a bit, and it seems that shoppers finally, maybe excepting you and me, but there are lot of shoppers out there who really want to update their wardrobes again. And it looks like now we're going to see some increases in the sales of those handheld gadgets - the smartphones, the electronic readers. Those are pretty healthy. So, we could actually see more people shopping this year.
HANSEN: Where does the hiring process stand right now?
GEEWAX: We're certainly in the very early stages of that. But, you know, last week, Toys R Us - it's a major retail chain - they announced they're going to be hiring about 10,000 workers for the holidays, and that's an ambitious goal. So, the store managers actually have to start looking at job applicants right away.
All together, we should expect the nation's retailers will hire maybe about 600,000 people between now and Christmas Day. And, you know, Liane, that sounds like a lot but it's still way below the three-quarters of a millions people we used to see maybe five years ago. And the competition for each one of those jobs is going to be fierce.
Retail workers generally don't get paid very much and these are temporary jobs, but still, when you've got that many people out of work - we're talking about maybe 15 million people right now looking for jobs - when you have that kind of a large cohort of people looking for work, they're going to take a temporary job just to get a paycheck going again.
HANSEN: When will these workers actually be on the job?
GEEWAX: Well, if you're one of those job seekers, you know, you'd like that paycheck to start immediately, but John Challenger told me that he doesn't think that retailers are going to hire right away. They'll screen the applicants, they'll get people lined up but they want to hold off as long as possible so that they have the staffers they need when they need them. Store managers are still pretty wary about this recovery. They don't want to get stuck with a lot of cashiers standing around. So, those last-minute hires will probably see a rush in late November and into December.
HANSEN: You know, people often say that small businesses generate the most jobs. Is that true in the retail world?
GEEWAX: No, not so much when it comes to holiday hiring in the retail world. That's because shoppers are still very focused on discounts and they're looking for those big box stores. So, most of the hiring is going to be at places like Wal-Mart, Target and Toys R Us.
HANSEN: Do you think consumers will ever return to the days of splurging for the holidays?
GEEWAX: You know, we might eventually but this recession has been so severe that it has very much changed people's mindsets about shopping. Back in the middle part of the past decade, people felt like they could go in the store, whip out a credit card, buy gifts and somehow they were going to be able to pay for it all by pulling the equity out of their homes. But we live in a very different world now.
The latest figures on household wealth, they're very discouraging. People just don't have a lot of savings built up in the form of home equity. And right now, they're very focused on paying off their credit cards, not on running up new bills. So, I don't think economists are really looking for shoppers to go on spending sprees for a while.
HANSEN: Well, not only paying off credit cards, but there are bills that come in every month that need to be paid.
GEEWAX: Right. So, your home is worth less but you're still seeing all of those bills coming in. And we see from the statistics that in the first half of this year, household net worth actually shrunk by $100 billion. So, I wouldn't look for any big spending sprees. Even though it'll be better than last year, it's still hard times.
HANSEN: NPR senior business editor Marilyn Geewax. Thanks, Marilyn.
GEEWAX: You're welcome, Liane.
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