Holiday Hiring Slump Taking Shape Amid Boom in E-Commerce Employment

October 12, 2020 Updated: October 12, 2020

A labor market trend appears to be emerging amid the pandemic that as hiring has surged at a handful of e-commerce giants or at companies with significant online operations ahead of the Christmas shopping season, retail businesses overall seem to be bringing on fewer seasonal workers.

“Hiring is shaping up differently from previous years,” said AnnElizabeth Konkel, an economist with the Indeed Hiring Lab, a research group at the job posting site Indeed. Seasonal postings are about 11 percent below last year’s figures, she said, citing reasons that include concerns about future sales, reduced capacity because of store closings, and supply chain disruptions.

Along with job posting sites such as Indeed, companies such as UKG that manage employee work time are seeing a similar trend take shape. The firm noted that among its clients, companies in manufacturing continue to add shifts, while the number of shifts at retailers is flat, even as Christmas trees and decorations are beginning to pop up in stores.

“Four in 5 retailers (81%) brace for holiday shifts to be regularly understaffed as a result of employees being in and out of quarantine, and more than 1 in 4 (28%) are prepared to offer associates additional compensation or other rewards to come into work if COVID concerns become prevalent,” UKG wrote in a recent retail holiday trends report (pdf).

Also, 83 percent of retailers said the dynamics of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus pandemic have led them to believe that closing a store during the busy Christmas shopping season is “not unthinkable.”

Still, the UKG report found that 91 percent of retailers are confident—with more than half being “extremely confident”—that stores will be open and fully operational on Black Friday, suggesting that businesses have developed contingency plans to keep operating. Nearly half of retailers surveyed for the report said they will offer curbside pickup compared to just 13 percent last year, while more than a quarter said they have “significantly” increased their 2020 hiring target for seasonal staff dedicated to curbside, in-store, and drive-through pickup.

The shift toward online shopping or hybrid models such as “buy online, pick up in store” is also reflected in seasonal postings on Indeed, with posts that involve “loading & stocking” tripling to 14 percent, while the share of sales jobs fell to 10 percent from 18 percent.

Many labor economists have predicted such changes in behavior as people start to perceive in-person employment as risky, or the need to accommodate new family obligations when schools are closed.

Meanwhile, shipping giant UPS recently announced plans to hire 100,000 seasonal workers to help with the expected surge in demand for delivery of goods bought online ahead of Christmas.

“We’re preparing for a record peak holiday season,” said Charlene Thomas, UPS’s chief human resources officer, in a statement. “The COVID-19 pandemic has made our services more important than ever.” Thomas added that she expects “a large number” of these seasonal staff members will move into permanent positions after the holidays.

Anticipating a busy Christmas shopping season, delivery company FedEx said in September that it was both increasing hours for existing employees and looking to hire seasonal workers, boosting employment by an additional 70,000 staff members.

Amazon, meanwhile, recently said it was boosting its hiring by an additional 100,000 regular employees and expanding operations.

“We are opening 100 buildings this month alone across new fulfillment and sortation centers, delivery stations, and other sites,” said Dave Clark, senior vice president of worldwide operations at Amazon, in a statement. “We are proud to be hiring 100,000 new associates with pay of $15 per hour or more across those buildings and in our network.”

It comes as the Christmas shopping season is expected to get an earlier-than-normal start this year, with a recent report from Salesforce arguing that pandemic-related health concerns, along with expected product scarcity and shipping delays, will combine to fuel earlier holiday demand.

The pandemic has led to a shift in Americans’ buying habits, driving $107 billion in additional online spending since March, out of a total of $497 billion in online purchasing in the first eight months of 2020.

Reuters contributed to this report.

Follow Tom on Twitter: @OZImekTOM