2012 was a great year to find a holiday job, but 2013 may be a tougher year to become one of Santa's elves. According to new figures, holiday hiring will likely come in behind last year's soaring levels.
In 2012, retailers added more than 750,000 new workers, the highest level since 2000, according to outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. This year's hiring will likely come in closer to the 700,000 range, according to the firm's latest forecast, released Monday.
"Challenger estimated that seasonal job gains will not see a significant decline from last year's robust numbers, but they are likely to at best match the level of hiring that occurred in October, November and December 2012," said the firm in a Monday report.
In addition, holiday hiring announcements from retailers have thus far been a mixed bag.
Target, for example, announced last week that it would hire 70,000 new workers for the holidays, 20 percent fewer than it hired in 2012. Department store Kohl's plans to hire 53,000 workers, roughly equal to its 2012 figures. Meanwhile, Walmart appears to foresee a greater need for clerks and shelf-stockers. The nation's largest retailer announced Monday that it would bring on 55,000 new holiday workers, up slightly from its 2012 projections.
What's with the uncertainty? It's not necessarily that holiday spending is expected to decline. In part, stores are getting more efficient in their hiring.
"We're getting smarter in terms of anticipating how many resources we need when guests are really going to be shopping the hardest," as one Target spokesman told the Associated Press.
John Challenger, CEO of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, says that he sees this targeted hiring as a broader trend across major retailers.
"[Retailers] are going to be far more accurate in their hiring to have the right people at the right time in the right stores and not have people sitting on their hands," he says.
For example, a store might hire more workers for only heavy-shopping weeks, as opposed to for a full one-to-two-month holiday shopping season.
In addition, some of the declines in seasonal hiring may be due to an increase in work from regular workers. Target announced that it would allow permanent employees to take on extra hours during the holiday season, lessening the need for extra holiday clerks. Walmart, likewise, announced that it is transitioning 35,000 temporary workers to part-time status and 35,000 more from part-time to full-time.
One other perennial contributor to holiday hiring trends is e-commerce. Amazon said it would add 5,000 workers and eBay plans for 2,000 – drops in the bucket compared to the large hiring from big-box retailers, despite the big sales figures those sites could post. Even while e-commerce boosts holiday sales, it often doesn't boost hiring by the same magnitude, says Challenger.
Still, a slight expected pullback in Christmas and Hanukkah presents is also likely playing into retailers' hiring plans, says Challenger, adding that now firms understand that consumer sentiment is shakier. "The consumer is very moody right now."
Research firm ShopperTrak has estimated that November and December sales will grow by only 2.4 percent, compared to 3 percent in 2012 and 4 percent in 2011.
"Although the economy continues to recover slowly, consumers remain cautious about spending and are not ready to splurge," said ShopperTrak founder Bill Martin in a statement.
"I think certainly there was more optimism on the part of retailers last year," says Challenger.