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Published: Sunday, 9/9/2012 - Updated: 2 years ago

Local retailers size up holiday work-force need

Some optimistic about economy

BY JON CHAVEZ
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER
A customer shops at Hickory Farms' seasonal kiosk at Westfield Franklin Park in this 2008 file photo. A customer shops at Hickory Farms' seasonal kiosk at Westfield Franklin Park in this 2008 file photo.
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Christmas is more than three months away, but the quest to hire seasonal workers already has begun.

The largest number of openings will undoubtedly be in the retail sector, and some retailers are optimistic that the economic climate is improving enough for them to hire more workers than last year.

"We're increasing our head count by 5 percent this year, or roughly 225 people," said Mark Rodriguez, chief executive officer of Hickory Farms Inc., which is headquartered in downtown Toledo.

"We analyze tons of data that is available in the public domain and talk to many of our allies across North America. That includes mall operators, supermarket chains, and other proprietary data in order to form a company opinion," Mr. Rodriguez said. "We believe our numbers are pretty accurate."

John Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., a Chicago-based outplacement consulting firm that produces an annual forecast on seasonal hiring, said he is "cautiously optimistic" that hiring for the October-December holiday hiring period will be up slightly from 2011, when 718,500 seasonal workers were hired.

That was a 14.5 percent increase in hiring over 2010.

"It's going to depend on consumer confidence and spending power," Mr. Challenger said.

"We have seen some positive indications that the restaurant and hospitality industry is up; people are beginning to pay off some of the debt they have and they'll have a bit more discretionary income," Mr. Challenger said. Another positive sign: spending on back-to-school items was better than expected.

"Those will be some harbingers of better times this year. It's not great, it won't be a big breakout year or anything like that. But if consumer spending is progressing, that would suggest that hiring for this holiday season should continue to get slowly better as well," Mr. Challenger said.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' seasonally adjusted figures, the Toledo metro area added 2,002 retail trade jobs over the final three months of 2011. In 2010, the area gained 1,977 retail trade jobs over the final three months.

Mike Veh, work force development manager for The Source of Northwest Ohio, Lucas County's one-stop job agency, said that while his agency has not yet begun receiving requests for help with seasonal hiring, "the last couple of years we really haven't gotten the level of seasonal jobs that we've had in the past."

In 2007, the last year before the most recent recession, the area added 2,081 seasonal retail jobs, according to the labor bureau's statistics. However, in 2008 the number fell to 1,065 hires, and in 2009 it was 1,519 hires.

But Mr. Challenger said he expects a 1 to 5 percent increase in hiring this year, which is consistent with slow but steady growth in the economy.

"We saw some better teen hiring this summer, some discretionary hiring. It wasn't necessary, yet companies did it. So that's a good sign," he said. "It feels like the economy's not growing very rapidly, probably under 2 percent, so it seems unlikely that we'll see explosive growth in seasonal hiring. But layoffs are very light and companies are in slow-growth mode."

Hickory Farms, which sells specialty food products -- usually from temporary store fronts or mall kiosks -- annually employs about 5,000 seasonal workers nationwide. Mr. Rodriguez said that as his firm has studied the 2012 holiday season, he sees potential for increased sales over 2011, either through additional consumer spending or by capturing additional market share.

"We believe a 5 percent increase [in hiring] is a pretty aggressive number in this environment. We don't think spending will be gangbusters, but we think we'll take more market share," he said. "We believe we'll get a bigger share of the wallet regardless of what overall spending is going to be."

Hickory Farms already is in the process of hiring its seasonal work force. Of the 225 extra workers it plans to hire this year, most will be in California, Texas, and the midatlantic states. Mr. Rodriguez said the company's employment numbers in Ohio will increase by 10 percent this year, though he declined to say how many workers the company will hire in Ohio.

At Westfield Franklin Park, additional retail hiring is expected this year, said Julie Heigel, the mall's marketing director.

The mall typically acts as a hiring clearinghouse for its tenants, and Ms. Heigel said postings for seasonal job hiring have started to come in, along with requests for applications for permanent employees.

"We are opening nine new stores from here to the end of the year and they all need workers. That's definitely a nice thing for us," she said.

"New York & Co. and Williams Sonoma are hiring right now for the holiday season," Ms. Heigel said.

They will compete for workers with other new retailers, including Charming Charlie's, which will open next week. A new store, XXI Forever, which is a new concept from the Forever 21 chain, is building a new store in the former Borders book store space.

"They will need a lot of people. It's more than double the size of their current store and is adding men's clothes to it. They plan to be open by the holidays," Ms. Heigel said.

Although it didn't have specific work-force numbers, The Andersons Inc. said it will expand its retail work force by between 5 and 10 percent for the holidays.

"We really expect our hiring needs will be similar to what they were last year," said The Andersons spokesman Debra Crow. "We're not seeing any big shifts that we feel that we need to bring on more people or less people for the holiday shopping season."

Ms. Crow added that The Andersons has begun its seasonal hiring process. "We found a while back that we needed to start hiring for holidays about the same times as when kids go back to school, so we're bringing in new seasonal hires right now," she said. "The reason we do that is we want to make sure our staff is properly trained before the holiday rush occurs."

Other retailers have yet to settle on a forecast for the holiday season and are waiting a little longer to see how the trends will go before deciding on their number of seasonal hires.

Costco, for example, knows it will be adding extra workers for the holidays, but it isn't sure exactly how many it will need until early October.

"As far as specifics, we don't have that ironed out. We're pretty nimble and can add or subtract staff as we go along. But we won't be subtracting, we'll add more than anything," said Toledo area store manager Matt Kiersmaker.

"Personally, I'm optimistic about this holiday season. … But we will just kind of play it by ear as we get closer to those dates," he added.

With the growth of online shopping, the need for delivery of items ordered online has grown, increasing business for delivery firms such as FedEx and UPS.

Officials at FedEx, which operates a delivery hub in Northwood, said they have not firmed up their seasonal hiring plans yet. But UPS, which operates a hub in Maumee, has determined its hiring needs and will begin sorting through seasonal hiring applications in about a week and start interviewing in October.

"We want to be ready to go on Nov. 1," said Greg Kelley, a work-force planning manager for the UPS district that covers Toledo.

Mr. Kelley said the delivery service's needs this season will be similar to last year's, even though it expects an increase in business thanks to more online orders.

"We have done a lot of enhancement to our technology that allows us to do more plotting and mapping of routes," he said. "We do have the opportunity to become more efficient."

At Maumee, Mr. Kelley said UPS plans to add 10 drivers, 120 part-time workers who will be inside the Maumee hub, and 250 helpers who will assist drivers on their routes.

"If you look at the year-to-year growth of online shopping … you know that that piece of the retail business is just booming and even though we will be more efficient, we still will hire a large number of seasonal employees," Mr. Kelley said.

Contact Jon Chavez at: jchavez@theblade.com or 419-724-6128.



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