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Stores won't cut holiday hiring much But temporary workers may get fewer hours

Those planning to pick up an extra job for the holiday season in some U.S. cities are being warned to act fast. Forecasts for seasonal retail hiring indicate there will be fewer jobs available this year and that more people will be applying for them.

But that might not be the case locally, according to Western New York retailers.

"I know that's the big hubbub, but we're not seeing that here," said Trinity Phillips, sales leader at Bath & Body Works on Elmwood Avenue.

"We're hiring just as many people as we always have," she said.

Many 2008 hiring goals in the area will remain the same as last year and some stores will even add a few more of Santa's helpers than were onboard in 2007.

Deflated consumer confidence and limp sales are leading many retailers in the nation to cut back on holiday hiring this year, according to studies by job placement agency Challenger, Gray & Christmas and a survey by Ipsos Public Affairs.

But area experts speculate Western New York's flat economy could be sheltering it from any major seasonal employment disruption. Because we tend not to participate in big employment booms, we are somewhat sheltered from its big drops.

"Compared to most other U.S. cities, Buffalo has so far experienced relatively less of the economic downturn," said Debabrata Talukdar, associate professor of marketing at the University at Buffalo. "As such, the number of seasonal employment opportunities in the retail sector may still remain similar to the last year and [is] definitely likely to see less decline compared to most other cities."

With the bulk of hiring done in October -- though employment numbers peak in December -- it may be a while before we see how local anecdotal evidence measures up against hard numbers.

On average, national retailers hire about 727,500 temporary workers to see them through the busy holiday shopping season. Last year, that number was down to 698,300. It is expected to fall even further this year, possibly making it the tightest since 2001 when the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks kept shoppers home. Stores added just 585,300 temporary employees that year.

Some experts are warning the worst is yet to come as sales slowed by higher gas prices and plummeting home equity are compounded by the current credit market freeze, according to a report by CNN Money. And despite Buffalo's relatively buffered position, we could still be affected by national woes, as established retailers such as Pennsylvania-based Bon-Ton continue to struggle. Some corporate stores, such as Linens-N-Things, will disappear altogether.

But, for now, local managers said the outlook is not so dire here as in the rest of the country. Spokespersons for stores such as Toys 'R' Us and The Gap said they have hired or will hire the same amount of help it had on hand last year, while places such as Banana Republic and Fashion Bug said they will actually bring on a few more folks than last year.

"Like most retailers, what we'll do is look for a lot of help so we can have all hands on deck in case someone calls off or leaves," said Kelly Beck, assistant manager at Banana Republic, which expects to hire about 50 people at its Niagara Falls location alone. "But, it's not like we're giving them all 30 hours a week, either. Some people are working five hours a week."

Having a fully staffed store without a committed number of work hours will give retailers more leeway if numbers continue to slip, allowing them to respond quickly to an uncertain economic climate.

Discount department store Target is taking slumping sales nationwide into consideration when hiring, but said seasonal employment varies by store and is affected by several factors, including the store's size, market and traffic projections.

"We continue to experience a soft sales environment and are planning all areas of our business accordingly, including holiday hiring for our stores," said Beth Hanson, a Target spokeswoman.

Retailers began hiring conservatively after sales fell by 0.5 percent in July and 0.3 percent in August, according to John Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

In September, national retail sales saw their biggest drop in three years. Numbers were down 1.2 percent -- almost doubling what economists had anticipated.

Because Target continues hiring seasonal help throughout January, which is late for most retailers, management can recalibrate to a store's changing needs rather efficiently.

Still, many employers have filled their stables and locked the doors to the employment office by October, meaning those looking for jobs should get in on the action as soon as possible. Those expecting to apply for seasonal employment in November or December may find that many opportunities have already dried up.

Many seasonal workers take on temporary employment to make extra cash for the holiday season or to take advantage of the store discount offered by most companies. Most stores pay minimum wage, but some use store credits and savings as an added incentive. Clothing retailer Fashion Bug offers a particularly generous 40 percent off to both temporary and permanent employees.

Some students, retirees and stay-at-home moms return to the job every season, with their experience and proven track record often giving them an edge over new applicants.

This year, competition might be a bit stiffer. Seasonal applicants not only will compete for slots with seasoned veterans, but also with unemployed workers looking for something -- anything -- to see them through.

"Because of the general downturn in the economy, there has been a rise in the unemployment level across all sectors in the economy," Talukdar said.

Unemployment was up to 6.1 percent in September compared to 4.5 percent for the same month last year.

"So, more people will definitely be looking for seasonal jobs in sectors like retailing," he said.

That was the case with Tracey Gibbs, a West Side resident who just landed seasonal work at keepsake store Things Remembered in the Boulevard Mall.

"I normally work full time. I've been looking for a job, but I know they're scarce this year so I took a chance on seasonal employment and they hired me," Gibbs said.

Many employers said they watch the performance of seasonal employees and will keep them in mind for future permanent openings, which is what Gibbs is banking on right now.

"I'm hoping to stay on if they'll accept me and if everything goes right," she said.


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