WASHINGTON - The holiday hiring season has started, and it looks as if it will be a challenge to match or surpass last year's strong showing. The sluggish economy is growing, but well below its potential, and competition is fierce from online companies, which hire fewer workers.

WASHINGTON — The holiday hiring season has started, and it looks as if it will be a challenge to match or surpass last year’s strong showing. The sluggish economy is growing, but well below its potential, and competition is fierce from online companies, which hire fewer workers.

“Last year was a boom year for hiring. It surprised everybody, the degree to which retailers were hiring,” said John Challenger, the CEO of labor market consultancy Challenger Gray & Christmas Inc. “It seems unlikely that it would repeat.”

The good news, according to Challenger, is that retailers will add more workers, and it’ll mark the fifth consecutive holiday season with rising retail employment. The bad news: Last year is hard to top.

Holiday hiring in 2012 hit a 12-year high, with retail employment gaining almost 752,000 jobs from Oct. 1 to Dec. 31. That’s more than double the 324,900 workers added in 2008 — the year of the financial crisis — which was the lowest number of new retail jobs in this period since 1982.

Those dark days are in the rearview mirror, but there’s reason to think that the holiday hiring period that began this week will fall short of last year’s, even as sales are projected to increase modestly.

The analytical firm ShopperTrak forecasts a 2.4 percent increase in holiday retail sales in November and December, a slower pace than last year’s 3 percent sales gain. Shopper traffic is projected to fall 1.4 percent this year compared with last year’s 2.5 percent increase, ShopperTrak said.

“This holiday season, we really could see more of the same. We’re certainly expecting growth; the question is how will this year’s growth compare to last year’s,” said Kathy Grannis, a spokeswoman for the National Retail Federation, noting that households are richer with rising home prices, the stock market is strong, and auto sales have been booming. “All these positive indicators have not shown up at the register in 2013 so far for retailers.”

Consumers can expect earlier-than-usual promotions because this holiday season will have fewer peak shopping days than last year’s.

“Retailers have a reduced window of time to capture peak holiday spending, as only 25 days lie between Black Friday (Nov. 29) and Christmas this year, compared to 31 days in 2012,” ShopperTrak said, pointing to four full weekends to shop after Black Friday, not last year’s five.

That’s one of several reasons for the expected slower pace in retail hiring this holiday season.

Retailers also have grown savvier, Challenger said, by “taking advantage of ‘big data’ to hire more accurately, and the slow but steady move to online retail requires fewer retailer workers.”

Also, advancements in software allow retailers to better gauge what days and times customers are most likely to visit stores, and companies are staffing accordingly.

“Even within stores that are brick and mortar, they are using more and more technology to aid the customer, and that means fewer people (working) in the stores,” Challenger said. “Now much more, the store will be filled with people (working) at peak times, but when times are slow there won’t be the same number of people in the store.”

Consumers also continue to gravitate to shopping online, taking advantage of free delivery specials. This has resulted in more hiring at online companies, but nowhere near the pace of hiring at traditional brick-and-mortar stores.

Amazon.com has announced that it’ll hire 5,000 seasonal workers and eBay has announced 2,000 planned seasonal hires, Challenger noted in its holiday hiring forecast. But the early hiring that large, traditional retailers announced dwarfs that number. Target is projecting 70,000 seasonal hires, Kohl’s 52,000. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. said last week that it would add 55,000 holiday workers.

“Almost more than any other number, that really does epitomize the kind of effects that have hit our economy as we move from the brick-and-mortar age to the online,” Challenger said. “Amazon’s numbers are less than 10 percent of the hiring being done by Target.”

The National Retail Federation, the largest association for retailers, pointed to import volume at the nation’s seaports as a sign that holiday sales might be on the upswing.

Import volumes at the ports where most retail goods move saw a 5.1 percent increase in September compared to the same month last year. September is when holiday goods begin arriving, so it’s a harbinger of things to come.

“It’s too early to predict holiday sales, but merchants are clearly stocking up,” Jonathan Gold, the federation’s vice president for supply chain matters, said in a statement.

The cargo import numbers don’t necessarily mean that sales or hiring will improve, and they don’t tell much about the value of the merchandise that’s being imported. But they do hint at retailer expectations.

“Based on the … increases we’re hearing about in terms of inventory plans, it’s safe to assume that retailers aren’t expecting a bad holiday season,” said Grannis, the spokeswoman for retailers. Is there room for growth? Sure. “We just haven’t reached the point where holiday spending is back to normal levels.”


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