Few stores plan to add extra staff to help the holiday shoppers

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Santa will not be taking on extra elves at the North Pole this Christmas.

The jolly old employer is expected to follow the trends of retailers nationwide who do not plan to load their aisles with seasonal help to assist holiday shoppers.

John Challenger, CEO of Chicago-based outplacement firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas, is predicting no increase in holiday hiring by retailers over the number hired last year.

The experience of wandering around the retail mecca of Robinson bears that out.

A few stores have signs advertising job openings -- Dollar Tree, Ikea, JoAnn Fabrics & Craft, and Toys R Us -- but more retailers are like Brenda Fisk. She owns the toy store Fun Buy the Pound, which has locations at The Mall at Robinson and in Sewickley.


Ms. Fisk is sticking with her current crew and just giving them extra hours to meet the holiday rush.

She said the rough economy had held down hiring.

"When it all started going bad two or three years ago, people started dealing with what they had. People are stretching to make it work," she said.

In 2006, before the recession hit, there were 746,800 holiday hires by retailers across the country, according to numbers that Challenger, Gray and Christmas gathered from data published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In the midst of the recession in 2008, only 324,900 people were hired for the Christmas season. Last year, while hiring was not yet up to pre-recession levels, 655,825 jobs were added for the three-month holiday shopping season. Mr. Challenger expects that number to remain the same this year.

No one is expecting a blockbuster holiday season for retailers. The National Retail Federation is predicting sales will increase by 2.8 percent over last year. The International Council of Shopping Centers is predicting a 3 percent increase in sales for department stores.

Macy's is increasing its staffing levels from last year. This year the department store operator, which also has Bloomingdale's stores, is hiring 78,000 seasonal workers. Last year it hired 75,000.

Best Buy, however, announced it would hire 15,000 additional people for the holiday season this year, half of the number that helped the consumer electronics retailer during last year's end-of-year rush. The retailer's sales have flagged in recent quarters as consumers pulled back on purchases of video game systems, TVs and mobile phones.

For all of the retail development in Robinson, the past decade has seen family incomes in the community near Pittsburgh International Airport fall, as many jobs once associated with the former US Airways hub have been replaced by retail positions.

A recent report by the Brookings Institution comparing data from the 2000 Census to later in the decade found the number of people living below the federal poverty line in Robinson had grown by 10 percent. The township now has a poverty rate between 10 and 20 percent.

Managers of chain stores, who were not allowed to speak on the record, said that despite the paucity of job openings and a regional unemployment rate of 7.4 percent, it was hard to find temporary employees.

One said applicants, when they learned the scope of their duties and the hours they would be expected to work while earning the minimum wage, would not accept the positions.

Another manager said cuts by the Port Authority of Allegheny County made getting to work more difficult for some potential employees. The nearest bus stop to The Mall at Robinson since the latest round of transit service cuts is outside of Ikea, which is a mile walk to the mall without sidewalks. Even the buses that still come are running less frequently.

One beacon of hope for retailers looking for help are the so-called "boomerangs" -- often college students who come home for holidays and come back to work. Those returning employees are already trained, so they are particularly valuable.

LouAnn Harbin, manager of Audrey's Attic at The Mall at Robinson, said the store had two boomerang employees. So while the store, which is now loaded with holiday trinkets, employs four workers for 10 months of the year, the extra holiday shopping hours will be covered by the additional two people.

Audrey's Attic has another trick for handling the increased workload at the holidays.

Ms. Harbin said her regular customers know the drill: They open boxes and check to make sure items are not broken and then bag them up themselves, saving the clerks' time.

Ann Belser: abelser@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1699.


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