Adding hours vs. people. Sometimes, the outcome of column research is less conclusion and more advice from the Magic 8 Ball.
Retailer query: “Will you be hiring seasonal help for the holidays? How will it compare to both last holiday season and pre-pandemic holiday 2019?” (Shakes spherical black childhood toy that looks like an overgrown pool hall billiard ball.)
Response: “Reply hazy, try again.” (Shakes harder.) “Concentrate and ask again.” (Shakes as though it contains a martini, yearning to be released.) “Cannot predict now.”
Seasonal retail holiday job forecasting, meet Mattel.
Based on an admittedly anecdotal canvass of business membership organizations, national retail behemoths and local retail shops, it looks like seasonal employment in Whatcom and Skagit counties will be less about temporary hires and more about giving existing staff more hours, if needed.
And for those businesses still struggling to fill open positions, forget the “seasonal.” It’s about hiring, period.
All of this is happening against an economic big picture that is mixed. Inflation continues nationally at an annual rate of 8.2% in September (and at a higher 9.0% rate in the Seattle metro area through August, the most recent month for which there’s data), stoking ongoing fears of a recession.
Meantime, U.S. retail and food service spending was estimated to be up for September, but also at 8.2% — raising the question of whether it truly was a net increase in stuff being sold, or just consumers paying extra to keep up with rising prices.
The northwest corner of Washington state does have different conditions than the country as a whole. Another country nearby, for example.
“I would expect that our retail sales will dramatically increase compared to the last couple of years with the border opening,” said Guy Occhiogrosso, president and CEO of the Bellingham Regional Chamber of Commerce.
Some kind of seasonal hiring increase would also seem likely by looking at what happened in late 2021. Anneliese Vance-Sherman, regional labor economist with the Washington State Employment Security Department, crunched the numbers.
In Whatcom County, there was a net increase of 401 jobs classified as “retail trade” in the fourth quarter of 2021 compared to the average number of new hires in each of the first three quarters, a hike of 27%. In Skagit County, the Q4 2021 increase over the quarterly average was 206, or 20%.
“Although the past couple years have seen substantial disruption, the seasonal pattern of hiring in retail trade in Whatcom and Skagit County has been fairly steady over time,” Vance-Sherman said, “and 2021 figures should be fairly representative of what we could expect in 2022.”
Even real estate indicators are up. The vacancy rate for retail commercial property in Bellingham decreased from 3.6% to 3.3% between the second and third quarters of 2022. The analysis by Ryan A. Martin, co-owner and broker at Pacific Continental Realty, found increased demand downtown, in the Meridian corridor and at the Bellis Fair mall.
Martin said this might be more the impact of temporary Halloween pop-ups than the winter holidays. But “overall, the retail sector of the commercial real estate market in Bellingham is very strong. I expect the market to continue to be strong,” he said.
Larger retailers are hard to pin down. Walmart, which initially trumpeted 40,000 planned hires for seasonal and full-time positions, wasn’t able to break down Washington state hiring or the split between seasonal and permanent roles when asked. All it would say is first dibs on extra hours would go to current staff.
After that, the company would “strategically hire seasonal associates to help with the busy holiday season — and that number will vary from store to store, depending on each store’s individual needs and the extra hours picked up by current associates,” according to a spokesperson.
Seattle-based Amazon, which early in October touted 150,000 seasonal, full-time and part-time holiday hires across its fulfillment network, had no openings within 50 miles of Bellingham on its Amazon Jobs site on Oct. 19. A distribution facility the company is having built near Burlington has yet to open.
Smaller retailers either appear cautious or set.
“We are fortunate enough to have several old employees who are happy to help cover shifts over the holidays, as well as some current employees who are able to flex up in hours during the busy season,” said Erika Millage, manager at The Third Planet in downtown Bellingham. “I think most of us downtown have staff that are willing to work a little extra during the holidays.”
Similar responses — that existing employees will handle holiday needs, as they have in the past — came from retailers as varied as Samuel’s Furniture in Ferndale, My Garden Nursery in Bellingham and Village Books and Paper Dreams in Lynden and Bellingham.
“We’re hoping for a strong holiday season and we are anticipating a lot of foot traffic,” said Sarah Hutton, Village Books co-owner. “In general, we don’t do seasonal hiring — mostly because there are so many moving pieces and we want to maintain our high level of customer service, so bulking up our staff simply for a month or two isn’t as successful for us.”
For those who knew retailers that were hiring this quarter, the emphasis was on filling roles that are needed, holidays or not, and that “seasonal” jobs uptick may simply look different this year. Maybe more … permanent?
We should know in the remaining 59 shopping — and staffing — days before Christmas.
Places & things
Eyes on Fremont Bellingham expects to open Oct. 31 at 1303 Cornwall Ave. in downtown Bellingham. Eyes on Fremont, an independent eyewear store long a staple of Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood, is taking over Everything in Sight Optical for a second location after Everything in Sight’s owners retired. New owner Nate Ogura said there’s history to the opening date: “The original Seattle location’s first day was Halloween of 1996.”
(For the latest Places & Things, check here throughout the week.)
Frank Catalano’s column appears Wednesdays. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter @FrankCatalano.