No fiscal cliff or sluggish job market can keep Americans from buying gifts for each other. According to new estimates from the National Retail Federation, retail spending is expected to grow by 4.1 percent this holiday season over last year's, with shoppers spending $586.1 billion. That's slower than last year's 5.6 percent growth, but it's still faster than the 10 year average of 3.5 percent. Online sales in particular are expected to grow by 12 percent over last holiday season, to $96 billion.
"In spite of the uncertainties that exist in our economy and among consumers, we believe we'll see solid holiday sales growth this year," NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay said in a statement. He characterized the figures as "one of the most optimistic forecasts" from his organization since the recession.
The organization's chief economist, Jack Kleinhenz, was more measured in his remarks. "While moderate compared to what we experienced the last two holiday seasons, the forecast is a very pragmatic look at what to expect this year given the current rate of economic growth," he said in a statement accompanying the numbers.
While recent boosts in consumer confidence and housing prices signal a recovering economy and may encourage shoppers to open their wallets, Kleinhenz points out that consumers are still anxious about the overall economic landscape.
Alongside all of that spending, stores will be adding plenty of cashiers, shelf-stockers, and elves to their ranks. The NRF predicts that retailers will add 585,000 and 625,000 seasonal employees in November and December—roughly as many as they added last year, at 607,000.
The NRF isn't alone in seeing potentially strong job growth. John Challenger, CEO of outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, said in late September that holiday hiring over the last three months of the year would likely be up from a year ago, and could approach 700,000 jobs.
It may seem counterintuitive that retailers would be adding hundreds of thousands of workers, given that businesses have been bemoaning the uncertainty facing the economy, particularly in the "fiscal cliff" of spending increases and expiring tax cuts scheduled for the end of the year. However, the NRF's estimates are supported by optimistic projections from many of America's retailers.
Macy's announced this week that it would hire around 80,000 seasonal workers this season, up 2.6 percent form last year. Kohl's recently said it expected to hire over 52,000 seasonal employees, 10 percent more than the 2011 holiday season. Toys R Us announced in late September that it would hire 45,000 workers over the holidays, 13 percent more than last year. Wal-Mart has also announced that it will bring in 50,000 workers over the holidays. While 600,000 jobs are welcome additions to an economy that's having trouble adding even 200,000 jobs in one month, Americans shouldn't expect the holiday surge to bring the jobless rate down. The Labor Department's seasonal adjustment calculations are designed to account for regular bumps in holiday hiring.
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Danielle Kurtzleben is a business and economics reporter for U.S. News & World Report. Connect with her on Twitter @titonka or via E-mail at email@example.com.