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Perhaps more than ever, online shopping is changing the seasonal workforce in 2020

Holiday retail jobs are shifting toward deliveries, e-commerce, and in-store pickups.

A Target employee handed a customer a curbside pickup purchase.
A Target employee handed a customer a curbside pickup purchase.Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

It’s a tradition for the ages: As the year-end shopping season kicks off, retailers across the country announce plans for seasonal hiring, bringing on a temporary workforce to help manage the holiday crush.

But like everything else in 2020, seasonal retail jobs are undergoing pandemic disruptions. Last year, Macy’s announced it would bring on 80,000 holiday employees; that number dropped to 25,000 this year. J.C. Penney hired 37,000 in 2019; this year it’s only hiring 1,700. Seasonal gigs at big-box stores will increasingly involve packing orders for pickups or shipping them to customer’s homes, while transportation, logistics, and warehousing jobs are anticipated to triple this year as consumers conquer their gift lists online.

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Meanwhile, at independent storefronts, shop owners are pulling back on seasonal hiring — why have more bodies in your store when you have limits on headcounts? — and are just hoping to survive the holiday season.

“The biggest question for [retailers] is, has the pandemic fundamentally and permanently changed people’s shopping patterns?” said Andrew Challenger, senior vice president of the job placement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. During the lockdown, he said, “a lot of people logged on and did their grocery shopping and bought their deodorant for the first time online and might have really liked it. They might not want to go back.”

After plummeting in March, retail sales at the beginning of November were up 8.6 percent over prepandemic levels at the start of 2020, according to data from Harvard University’s Opportunity Insights research project, and jobs in the industry have bounced back somewhat from the shutdowns. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported this month that as of October, the retail sector has added 1.9 million jobs since April, but that’s still 499,000 jobs below February levels.

As retailers have started their holiday promotions earlier this year to cut down on crowding in stores, those part-time seasonal hires happened earlier than usual. Many industry watchers are hoping the jobs may help stimulate a stronger recovery and turn into long-term positions for those currently out of work.

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“We have really seen the acceleration in jobs and hiring, and we anticipate that to continue as things move forward,” said Jack Kleinhenz, chief economist for the National Retail Federation.

Much of the seasonal hiring reflects the shifts already well underway since the pandemic started, with many traditional retailers maneuvering their employees into new roles as more shoppers moved online. In its holiday hiring announcement, Target said twice as many of its 130,000 seasonal hires would be dedicated to curbside pickup and distribution center jobs as last year. And Shipt, the same-day delivery service owned by Target, announced it would be hiring 100,000 personal shoppers to fulfill customer orders from Target and other retailers like Office Depot, Petco, and Bed, Bath & Beyond.

Rachel Anninos started working for Shipt this fall after being out of work for several weeks because of a medical procedure and running out of paid time off. While she knew that seasonal retail jobs were available, Anninos didn’t like the idea of being tied down to a schedule. Instead, she picks up a few shifts a day, mostly at Target, filling up carts for Shipt shoppers and delivering them to their homes.

Anninos, 25, said she likes the work in part because she’s able to help those who might be fearful of shopping inside stores. “I enjoy the aspect of helping people who may not be able to because of the virus,” she said. “It’s such a stressful time now, and adding on the holidays, it will be nice to give people a little less stress.”

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Retailers have also been ramping up their hiring in transportation, warehouse, and logistics jobs as they anticipate more online ordering than ever before. Adobe estimates that holiday e-commerce sales will increase 33 percent this year, accounting for a total of $189 billion. So for companies like Amazon that have seen record profits during the pandemic — the company tripled its profits to $6.3 billion in the third quarter, up from $2.1 billion during the same period last year — bringing on more bodies to fulfill those orders will be critical. This fall, the company announced plans to hire 100,000 seasonal workers.

Walmart is also bringing on 20,000 hires to run “pop-up” fulfillment centers for e-commerce orders out of the distribution centers that usually ship pallets of products to stores. Meanwhile, the companies delivering all those packages are bulking up their teams: FedEx is bringing on 70,000 holiday workers, up from 55,000 last year, and UPS plans to add 100,000 jobs, up from 95,000.

All told, the number of transportation, logistics, and warehouse jobs is poised to triple this year, said Challenger. “There’s an enormous amount of activity,” he said. “These companies had been hiring already prior to the holiday season due to the pandemic. The fact that they’re expecting an even bigger bump is really telling.”

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Workers’ rights advocates are quick to point out that while many retailers have reported record profits during the pandemic and are staffing up for the fourth quarter to earn even more, some of the largest employers, including Amazon and Walmart, have stopped offering hazard pay to workers. They argue that with a second virus surge well underway, those profits should be funneled back into the workforce. “They may say, ‘We’re all in this together,’ but too many big retailers are prioritizing maximizing profits over paying their frontline workers,” Rick Claypool, research director at Public Citizen, said in a report released last week.

And amid the holiday hiring scramble, independent brick and mortar retailers are bracing for a difficult season. Back in February, Gary Drinkwater’s sales at his eponymous Cambridge menswear shop were at 72 percent of his projected revenue for the year, enough that he brought on an additional part-time salesperson. “We were going gangbusters,” he said.

Then the pandemic hit. For the past several months, as sales have trickled in, his employees have been keeping busy photographing inventory to add to his relaunched website. (He’s planning to add a new category soon: “dressing from the waist up.”)

So there was no reason to consider additional seasonal help this year, he said, particularly given the current headcount restrictions placed on retail stores. And while he thought about hosting a holiday shopping event, he can only have eight people in the store at a time, including him and his salesperson.

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“We can only have six other people – what if 10 showed up?” Drinkwater said. “That wouldn’t be good.”



Janelle Nanos can be reached at janelle.nanos@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @janellenanos.