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Published November 25, 2013, 08:38 AM

Retailers looking for workers to meet holiday shopping demand

GRAND FORKS, N.D. - Thursday will mark the official start of the holiday season.

By: John Hageman, Forum News Service

GRAND FORKS, N.D. - Thursday will mark the official start of the holiday season.

But retailers and bargain-hunting consumers will qualify Thursday’s significance with one extra word: shopping.

Black Friday, the post-Thanksgiving shopping extravaganza marked with lines outside department stores and special sales, seems to be stretching further into Thursday every year. But as shoppers gear up to find savings, local retailers often are hard-pressed to find enough workers to handle the influx of customers.

“There’s lots of job opportunity…particularly in the retail area,” said Tom Fetch of the local North Dakota Job Service office. “They’re typically your entry-level type jobs in those areas. And they’re typically lower pay and they’re typically part-time.”

“And they’re the hardest ones to fill, generally.”

A ‘dire need’

At the end of October, there were 267 job openings locally in the sales sector listed on the Job Service website, which was down from 343 openings in the previous month. But there were only 75 active resumes in that field by the end of October, and retailers are at the tail end of the recruiting season for holiday workers.

“If they don’t really have them on board right now, they’re not going to have a whole lot of success (finding workers),” Fetch said. He added businesses who have struggled with staffing the holidays in the past have been creative with scheduling.

One store still looking for seasonal help is Best Buy.

“We are still hiring seasonal employees, but I’m confident that we have the staff we need for a great Black Friday and holiday season,” said Jamie Solomon, general manager of the Grand Forks Best Buy in an emailed statement.

The small amount of people who are unemployed here and across the state could be contributing to retailers’ woes this time of year. Grand Forks County posted a 2.5 percent unemployment rate in September, according to preliminary data from Job Service.

“I’ve heard from the big box stores in town that they’re in dire need of seasonal help in pretty much all areas, overnight stocking shelves, cashiers, sales clerks,” Fetch said.

Still U.S. retail stores expect to add 9 million jobs from October to December this year, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers. That represents just a 0.5 percent increase from the same time period last year, the lowest growth rate since the worst years of the recession.

Target announced earlier this year it would only add 70,000 seasonal workers this year compared to 88,000 last year.

A manager at the local Kohl’s declined to offer details of the store’s holiday staffing plans, but noted that the store has “help wanted” signs up.

Kevin Flynn, store leader at the Grand Forks JC Penney, declined to say how many employees they’ll have over the holiday season.

“We’re always looking for talented individuals, no matter what time of the year,” he said.

Meanwhile, Dress Barn in the Columbia Mall is fully staffed for the holiday season, according to its store leader Tracy Kelley.

“I just added one person on for the holidays,” Kelley said. “But I know (other) stores are down a lot.”

An early start

Despite the title of Black Friday, this year’s sales have already started.

Walmart began a “pre-Black Friday savings event” Friday, “lowering the prices on popular toys and electronics, to match select Black Friday offers from Target, Toys R’ Us and Best Buy one week early,” stated a Walmart press release.

That earlier start may have to do with the fact that there six fewer days between Thanksgiving and Christmas this year compared to last year.

The Columbia Mall will open its doors at 7 p.m. Thursday, an hour ahead of when some its stores will open. Target will also open at 8 p.m.

Fetch said that he hasn’t heard from retailers having trouble staffing those earlier starts.

“I imagine they’re trying to do it with existing staff, where they adjust their schedules,” he said.

Bill Reid, the Columbia Mall general manager, said any staffing shortage stores may face is just another instance of a tight labor market across North Dakota and parts of Minnesota. He pointed to Thief River Falls, Minn.-based Digi-Key, which has started busing employees from as far away as Grand Forks.

“I think everyone is looking for people who can work,” Reid said. “It’s a microcosm of the employment situation in the state.”

Call Hageman at (701) 780-1244, (800) 477-6572 ext. 1244 or send email to jhageman@gfherald.com.

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