Seasonal Employment Plans Remain Steady

Catalogers may find one small consolation in light of the economic downturn: a larger pool of seasonal help.

Despite a slight May dip in unemployment, from 4.5% to 4.4%, economists expect the jobless rate to rise to at least 5% later this year. In fact, a recent survey of about 16,000 U.S. companies by Milwaukee-based temporary employment firm Manpower shows that hiring plans for third-quarter 2001 are nearly the slowest in a decade. Only 27% of those surveyed plan to add to their workforce in the next three months, down from 35% during the third quarter of 2000. What’s more, 9% of companies plan to cut staff, up from 5% a year ago.

For catalogers, those figures translate into more people seeking work. And that’s a good thing, given that none of the catalogers contacted plan to scale back their hiring for the holiday season.

Still the season for extra staff

“We’re anticipating hiring as much seasonal staff as we did last year,” says Bill Ihle, spokesperson for Medford, OR-based Bear Creek Corp., whose titles include food gifts catalog Harry and David and horticultural book Jackson & Perkins. Bear Creek has “thousands” of seasonal employees, both in its Medford headquarters and at its distribution center in Columbus, OH, he says. “Seasonal workers are hired from October through January, and most of the workers are either put on the phone lines or put in the distribution centers to pull or pack orders.”

Middleton, WI-based Pleasant Co., best known for its American Girl dolls and catalogs, also plans to maintain its holiday hiring plans. The company does nearly 70% of its business in the fourth quarter. “We regularly employ around 1,000 regular and part-time workers, but during the holiday season that number jumps to around 4,000,” says spokesperson Julie Parks. “So we plan to hire about 3,000 variable workers again this year.”

Pleasant Co. employs seasonal help in its five Wisconsin distribution centers and call centers and its Chicago store. Pleasant Co.’s recruitment begins as early as June, with most workers starting by October and working through December. “The two weeks after Thanksgiving are our peak weeks,” Parks says.

Outdoor gear and apparel cataloger/retailer Recreational Equipment Inc. (REI) will also stick to its usual fourth-quarter hiring strategy. “We plan to have about a 60% increase in staff, as well as additional fulfillment runs as needed to accommodate increased orders,” says Jennifer Lind, spokesperson for the Kent, WA-based company.

Cashmere, WA-based foods cataloger Liberty Orchards will hire more than 100 seasonal workers, just as it did last year. “About 80% of our sales are in the last quarter of the year, so we always staff up for fall in August,” says president Greg Taylor. “Our hiring builds to a peak in late November/early December, and then we start to lay off seasonal workers in mid-December.”

Liberty Orchards regularly employs about five office staffers who also answer the catalog phones, with a half-dozen or so employees working full-time in other capacities, such as shipping. But during the fourth quarter, the catalog’s staff size swells to more than 120. “During the fourth quarter, we’ll have as many as 60 operators” to handle the phones, Taylor says.

Since Liberty Orchards is in the rural Northwest, seasonal hiring isn’t typically a problem. “Many agricultural workers are available for temporary employment after the fall harvest,” Taylor notes. It also helps that the cataloger keeps many of its holiday workers through Valentine’s Day, which is another big season for the company.

Lee Williams, executive vice president of Stockbridge, MA-based window treatment cataloger Country Curtains, doesn’t usually worry about hiring holiday help. “We’re kind of an anomaly,” he says. “Most of our customers decorate in the months leading up to the Thanksgiving, and then things taper off,” he says.

But “we’re finding that [overall staff] turnover has reduced substantially,” as a result of the economy, Williams says. “People are sticking around.”

For the most up-to-date industry news, or to subscribe to the free Catalog Age Weekly e-mail newsletter, visit the Catalog Age Website at www.CatalogAgemag.com

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