Friday, November 9, 2018

Muted Christmas-Season Hiring

Christmas-season hiring has been quiet in the United States, and no one is quite sure why. An obvious structural change is that Amazon is hoping to lean heavily on its own delivery network for the first time this quarter, giving UPS and FedEx Home Delivery little reason to project enormous growth over last year. A possible Sears and Kmart liquidation, the earlier Toys ‘R’ Us liquidation, a pattern of early-December layoffs of seasonal personnel in 2017, and a tight labor market are reasons for retailers to hold back on hiring this time around.

Walmart, the largest employer in the United States by some measures, says it will not be hiring any seasonal workers. Instead, its regular employees will be preparing for long hours of overtime during Thanksgiving week and the two weeks before Christmas. Walmart will pay a fortune in overtime, but that could still be less than the fortune it would spend on the hiring process. Amazon’s seasonal hiring is smaller than last year despite estimates of 9 percent revenue growth compared to last year and a new need for tens of thousands of delivery drivers. Improved automation may be the explanation for a smaller seasonal army in Amazon’s warehouses this year. Fear of unions is another reason why Amazon is trying not to employ such a large number of workers doing the same work at the same location. Target is trying to hire a large number of seasonal store employees, but not quite so many as last year. Macy’s, stung by low December traffic after hiring an extraordinary number of seasonal workers in 2017, will not be repeating that mistake this year. JCPenney and Best Buy are the two largest retailers I could find that intend to hire more workers than a year ago, but they are hiring only now, so seasonal workers should expect to work only 100–200 hours in total.

If I had to sum up the seasonal hiring, I would have to say that uncertainty is making companies hesitate. Consumer confidence might be strong, but it does not feel solid. Retail patterns are shifting, with more online shopping than ever before, but consumers also starting to get tired of online shopping. More retail bankruptcies and liquidations are expected, and the impact on any given retailer is hard to predict. With a renegade White House and a divided Congress, there is a palpable risk of a constitutional crisis. To business planners, it looks like a good time to be cautious in plans.