Halloween is still more than a month away, but if you want a job this Christmas, now's the time to apply.
Some retailers are already hiring for the holidays, and those that are not will start soon.
Competition this year will be even tougher than in the past, with the state unemployment rate at 10.8 percent and retailers planning to hire conservatively.
Last year, retail employment grew by just 384,300 nationally from October through December, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That was nearly 50 percent fewer hires than in 2007, when retailers added 720,800 workers.
This year, many retailers say they are keeping holiday staffing levels the same as in the past. Some are hiring fewer people.
"A lot of retailers aren't sure what kind of crowds they're going to get, so they're really hesitant to embark on a really aggressive hiring strategy so far," said Britt Beemer of America's Research Group in Charleston, S.C.
So the best advice is to start hunting now.
Seasonal jobs, which were once the domain of college kids on break and some adults looking for some extra cash, are now highly coveted, even though they are mostly part-time gigs that pay somewhere between minimum wage and $8 or $9 an hour.
Many retailers will finish their holiday hiring around Halloween since that gives them time to train new employees before the big holiday shopping rush that traditionally kicks off on the Friday after Thanksgiving. Employers start now and do the bulk of their hiring in October and November.
Employees typically stay on through December, and some are asked to stay through January to help with returns, exchanges, gift card redemptions and all the normal post-holiday hoopla.
At Debby's Hallmark in Raleigh's North Ridge shopping center, the applications are pouring in, said Eric Chamoff, whose family runs that store plus two others.
"I posted an ad on Craigslist this morning, and I've had 29 applicants apply," he said at about 5 p.m. Thursday.
Most of the larger retailers will start their mass hiring in two or three weeks. Representatives from Target and J.C. Penney, for example, both said their stores will begin hiring next month.
Job hopefuls may face additional challenges from retailers such as Target, which plans to offer additional hours to existing employees before hiring new workers.
Each store will staff according to its needs, said company spokesman Kyle Thompson. Last year, Target hired 62,000 seasonal workers, but that was down from the year before, he said.
"This year, we project a decrease from that number," he said. "But it kind of varies by store. ... we cannot say whether [sales will] be up or down. But with current trends, we're trying to adhere to those trends with our hiring."
Even though most retailers are taking a conservative approach, one staffing expert predicts a higher-than-expected influx of shoppers willing to spend.
"I am convinced that this retail season is going to be surprisingly good on the upside," said J.P. Sakey, president of Raleigh staffing firm Headway Corporate Resources, which is already working to hire thousands of workers for retailers like Hickory Farms and Borders. "A lot of retailers are going to get themselves caught short in terms of merchandise availability and having staff on hand."
But not everyone is so sure, including those seeking holiday jobs.
Gourmet food retailer A Southern Season held a job fair for its Hillsborough distribution center earlier this month. That facility hires early because its busy season precedes the actual holiday, said spokeswoman Deborah Miller.
The job fair brought in more than 600 people, but A Southern Season hires only about 400 temporary staffers for the holidays, between the distribution center and the store in Chapel Hill.
"We're running lean and mean, and we ran lean and mean last Christmas and proved we could do it," Miller said. "We're not going overboard. We don't know what's going to happen with the economy, so we're going to err on the side of caution."
A second wind?
Still, for those who do not immediately find a job, not all hope is lost, said John Challenger of staffing research firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.
If holiday sales go better than expected, there may be an additional wave of hiring closer to Christmas, he said. And most retailers keep a list of eligible candidates in case they need to hire additional people.
The key is to get your name on the list.
"Meet the store manager in person," he advised. "Make sure they can put a name to your face. Come back regularly -- every two weeks or three weeks and just let them know you're there."
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