Calling All Elves: Retail Firms Seek Workers for Holiday Rush

While the biggest shopping season of the year officially kicks off today, retailers are engaged in another rush - the rush to recruit holiday workers.

With the economy five years into a recovery and unemployment relatively low, everyone from department store managers to the United States Post Office is scrambling this year to make sure operations are fully staffed for Christmas.

Consider: Sears, Roebuck & Co. alone plans to hire 30,000 to 40,000 extra workers, and United Parcel Service calculates that it needs 100,000 loaders, sorters, and delivery workers.

To bring in the retail troops, companies are trying a variety of strategies. Some are shelling out referral bonuses to employees. Lands' End, for example, pays $35 to each worker who recruits someone for the holidays. Others are extending benefits to holiday helpers, staging more recruiting fairs, and displaying poster-size help-wanted signs in windows. Most, however, aren't contemplating raising wages.

"The labor market is tight, so it's a little more difficult for retailers [to find workers]," says Rosalind Wells, chief economist at the National Retail Federation in Washington.

Estimates indicate that the holiday shopping season generates a million or more jobs - everything from gift wrappers and sales clerks to package deliverers and Christmas-tree cutters. Some 700,000 of these jobs are in the retail industry, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Many recruiters won't even entertain questions about a labor shortage. Their concern: Shoppers might get the impression that there won't be enough people to wait on them - a major faux pas in the retailing industry. Yet while it's unlikely that stores will go without enough help, companies aren't taking any chances. For example:

*Sears, the nation's second-largest retailer, has been enlisting local churches and garden clubs, as well as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, to help recruit holiday workers. In addition, it's been sending out job flyers in its monthly credit statements and paying up to $100 to employees who recommend new hires. "We've been a little more aggressive this year than in the past because the market has been so tight," says James Maloney, human resources manager for Sears's Boston district.

*In Dodgeville, Wis., where Lands' End is based, the unemployment rate is as low as a tuba note - 2 percent. Still, the catalog company has already hired the additional 2,200 packers, shippers, and order-takers it needs for the holidays - thanks to an aggressive recruiting plan.

As early as August, the company started tracking down newcomers to the area through the local post office. "It's not that great of a science," says Diane Huza, manager of recruitment and development.

In addition, it is busing in 90 students a day from the University of Wisconsin in Platteville. It's also tapped the talents of local farmers.

Vicki Northouse, for example, usually spends her days milking 60 Holsteins on the family's 581-acre farm in nearby Fennimore, Wis. Now she's working for the month at Lands' End, packing boxes instead of pitching hay.

"It's not hard," Ms. Northouse says matter-of-factly. "I'm used to working fast on the farm."

For the first time this year, too, Lands' End will extend those seasonal workers who decide to come back next Christmas full use of the company's fitness center year round - a big draw since it's one of the few in the area.

Atlanta-based UPS is setting up more booths at job fairs and bombarding the airwaves with solicitations for workers. The shipping company has calculated, with Swiss watch precision, the number of additional workers it needs for the holidays - 98,368. There's good reason for the high number: The company handles an additional 6 million packages a day during the Christmas season. Most work behind the scenes, unloading and sorting parcels. But at least 40,000 others help deliver the packages.

"We've started running [help-wanted] adds on the radio and in newspapers," says spokesman Mark Dickens. "We never used to do that."

Even the US Postal Service has been on the hunt for 40,000 to 50,000 additional letter carriers and mail sorters to help contend with the additional 40 million pieces of mail that Americans send during peak season.

Those who do take temporary jobs during the holidays come from every part of society. They are college students, retired bankers, homemakers, and mechanics. Many already have full-time jobs but are looking to put a little extra cash in their pockets - usually for gift-giving.

Others, however, do it simply for their own enjoyment.

"I'm semiretired and I like to have something to do," says Nona Scoville. She took a job for the holidays selling sunglasses and gloves at Filene's department store in Newton, Mass.

"It's been wild, but it's marvelous," she adds. "It's the only time of year I'd consider working retail."

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