Retailers see a seasonal surge in e-commerce hiring

An employee loaded merchandise into a box at the company’s fulfillment center in Tracy, Calif., ahead of last year’s Cyber Monday.
An employee loaded merchandise into a box at the company’s fulfillment center in Tracy, Calif., ahead of last year’s Cyber Monday. Bloomberg

That shopper walking the mall, head down, thumbs on cellphone, may not be checking Instagram. He or she may be doing holiday shopping without entering a store.

The all-important fourth-quarter seasonal shopping surge this year is marked by a continued swing to e-commerce.

Looking for evidence? Amazon said Tuesday that it is hiring 100,000 seasonal workers, about 1,000 of them at its Lenexa sorting facility alone. That’s a 25 percent growth in Amazon’s hiring plans from last year.

The National Retail Federation said 46.1 percent of holiday shopping is likely to be done online this year, up from 44.4 percent last year and the highest rate since it started measuring that e-commerce slice in 2006. And 21.4 percent of smartphone owners expect to shop with their devices, the highest percentage since the federation started asking that question in 2011.

“It used to be that the bulk of holiday hires would be in customer-facing positions on the sales floor,” said John Challenger, a hiring expert at Challenger, Gray & Christmas. “Now, as more and more shopping is completed online, the holiday hiring is shifting away from stores and into the warehouses.”

Sure, retailers across the country still are hiring temporary workers for the store floor. But Wal-Mart Stores said only that “many” of its 60,000 seasonal hires this year will be “customer-facing” cashier, sales associate and stocker positions.

Macy’s said it wants to fill 85,000 seasonal jobs, an “essentially flat” plan compared to last year, with about 13,600 of the jobs in its fulfillment and customer service centers.

Target, which aims for 70,000 seasonal hires, also plans to add about the same number as last year. Kohl’s plans to hire 69,000 seasonal workers, with about 9,500 for its distribution and fulfillment centers. Others, J.C. Penney and Toys R Us among them, have announced lower hiring expectations this year.

This year’s seasonal hiring boomlet will be more universally found in back office, order fulfillment, warehouse and trucking jobs. UPS, for example, said it expects to hire between 90,000 and 95,000 seasonal package handlers and truck drivers, including hundreds in Kansas City, to handle the jump in package volume from November through January.

Online shopping growth is benefiting from the fact that many retailers offer free shipping and, in some markets, one-day delivery. Some shoppers also like to price shop online and order a product for pickup at the store.

Even inside some retail stores, the trend to online fulfillment is growing. In Apple Stores, for example, sales associates ring up customers on their iPhones or iPads.

While Apple led the “mobile point-of-sale” movement, Challenger said, “it appears that we are nearing a tipping point, based on the number of companies developing systems, technology and apps to assist retailers in adopting this approach to checkout.”

Overall, the retail federation expects a 3.7 percent rise in holiday spending from last year, or about $630.5 billion in trade. Within that arena, the bigger growth — 6 to 8 percent — is forecast in e-commerce, or about $105 billion in sales. That’s on top of last year’s online sales bump of 5.8 percent.

But national hiring experts say retailers may have trouble filling a lot of the openings, whether they’re in-store, packaging or delivery. Available job hunters may not be interested in the wages being offered.

SnagAJob, an online job board for hourly positions, said its eighth annual seasonal hiring survey shows that the average expected pay rate for holiday employees nationally is $15.37 an hour, down from $17.50 last year. Focused on in-store clerk wages alone, the expected average plummets to $9.68 an hour nationally.

Couple lower wages with a low unemployment rate in more markets, including the Kansas City area, and retailers might find a lot of openings unfilled.

“To compete in this tough labor market, employers are having to make hard decisions around raising wages to attract talent,” said Peter Harrison, CEO at SnagAJob. “Our survey results around wages suggest that they are not quite ready to commit to this.”

That partly explains why many seasonal job announcements, like Amazon’s and Wal-Mart’s, trumpet career pathways and the chance to turn temporary positions into full-time work.

A CareerBuilder survey this fall found that 57 percent of seasonal hirers expect to offer full-time, “permanent” jobs to some seasonal workers, up from last year’s 42 percent.

The SnagAJob report also noted that many seasonal positions this year may offer fewer work hours — an estimated 23 hours a week, down from 25 hours a week last year.

While the prospect of less income might be discouraging for seasonal workers, Harrison noted that it could indicate an overall stronger economy. It could mean that retailers are keeping more workers on staff because year-round sales have improved and they don’t need quite as many additional seasonal hires.

“Seekers this season may have an easier time finding employment,” Harrison said, but “they may not have as much luck getting the hours they want.”

Diane Stafford: 816-234-4359, @kcstarstafford

The seasonal job market

According to a CareerBuilder outlook, here’s the breakdown for this year’s seasonal hiring:

▪ 46 percent of seasonal hirers want to fill customer service jobs.

▪ 23 percent seek administrative and clerical support workers.

▪ 17 percent are hiring for inventory management.

▪ 17 percent need hosts or greeters.

▪ 16 percent want shipping and delivery workers.

▪ 15 percent need accounting and finance professionals.

▪ 15 percent want to fill marketing jobs.

▪ 11 percent have non-retail sales openings.

▪ 10 percent need technology help.