All they want for Christmas is workers

Retailers go to new lengths to find help, as shoppers queue up.

Calling all elves.

That's the word among many retailers, whose shelves are piled high with chenille sweaters and DVD players but who don't have enough people to man the cash registers.

Even as the biggest shopping season of the year kicks off today, everyone from department-store managers to the United States Postal Service is still in the hunt for holiday help.

With the economy humming along and unemployment under 5 percent for 16 consecutive months, competition is stiff. As a result, retailers are resorting to extraordinary measures - offering referral bonuses to employees and customers, extending benefits to holiday help, and even doubling the $5.15-an-hour minimum wage.

"The last three years have been challenging, but this is the most significant because it's been a year-long battle," says Bruce Van Kleeck of the National Retail Federation in Washington. "You see hiring signs on top of merchandise racks and at checkout counters."

Some stores are even spending their precious advertising dollars to run help-wanted ads on TV.

All this means higher labor costs for stores this season - which may cut into profits and, in the end, the year-end balance sheet.

For shoppers, it may mean long lines at the cash register or fewer clerks to check the stock room to see if maybe, just maybe, there's one more Sing & Snore Ernie. The lack of help, say some analysts, could also push time-deprived Americans to do more of their shopping via the Internet and by catalog this Christmas.

Because long lines are a major taboo for retailers, store chains are getting creative in their search for help.

* Sears, Roebuck & Co. is donating as much as $100 per worker to any charity that refers a new hire to any of its Detroit stores.

* Wal-Mart, the nation's largest private employer with 750,000 workers, grants interviews on the spot to anyone who walks in the door and asks for a job.

* Tower Records had to tap temporary agencies for the first time this year to help staff some of its 100 stores for the holidays.

By some estimates, the holiday shopping season generates 1 million or more jobs - everything from sales clerks and gift wrappers to package deliverers and Christmas-tree cutters. About 700,000 of those jobs are in the retail industry, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

HOPING to get a jump on holiday hiring, many stores started recruiting as early as Labor Day. The rush reflects a high demand for low-wage labor year round that has swept not just malls, but also restaurants, gas stations, and the travel and hospitality industries.

During the past year, retail trade has been one of the fastest growing sectors of the American economy, creating an average of 41,000 new jobs a month, according to the BLS.

"Everyone knows we're in a very tight labor market," Mr. Van Kleeck says. "All those businesses that hire semi-skilled workers are all struggling. That crunches the labor pool for the traditional holiday retailer."

As a sign of just how desperate stores are to hire help, many have raised wages.

"No one is paying minimum wage anymore," says Laurie Bauer, a spokeswoman with Best Buy, based in Eden Prairie, Minn. In some markets, the consumer electronics chain is paying $8.50 an hour or more.

The Container Store starts seasonal workers at $8 to $10 an hour and offers a 40 percent discount on all merchandise. The Dallas-based chain is heavily targeting at-home parents to work in its stores and has created shifts that work around carpool schedules.

It's also running ads in the sports sections of local newspapers to "attract the guy who may not have thought of working [here]," says Elizabeth Barrett, the company's vice president of operations.

Sears, the nation's second-largest private employer, plans to hire as many as 50,000 people nationwide for the Christmas season.

Its referral program has helped boost hiring. The company pays $50 to an employee every time he refers someone to Sears who is hired. It hands out $25 gift certificates to customers who do the same.

Sears's Share the Joy campaign, where Sears makes a contribution to charities in exchange for new hires, has yielded more than 20 new clerks, says Allen Greenfield, human-resource manager for the Detroit district, a 16-store region where the promotion is running.

"Every little bit helps," he says.

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