Help Hard to Find This Holiday Season

KNOXVILLE — The hardest part of Christmas shopping this season may be finding someone to ring up your purchases, say University of Tennessee researchers who study seasonal retailing.

A robust year-end economy is driving Christmas sales, but low national and state unemployment rates have created a shortage of help during retailing’s busiest period, said Dr. Matt Murray, an economist at UT-Knoxville.

“Christmas shoppers should face up to the fact that they’re going to find poor quality of service most places,” Murray said.

Dr. Ann Fairhurst, who studies workforce issues in the retailing department of the College of Human Ecology, agrees.

“We do have a shortage. Everyone will experience not having the service level they need, “Fairhurst said. “If shoppers get 80 percent of their needs met, they’ll be doing well.”

The lack of qualified help isn’t new to this shopping season and will not end when the Christmas sales are over, she said. Positive economic conditions over the past several years coupled with low unemployment have combined to reduce the number of people interested in seasonal and part-time work.

“Because the economy is a little better than it has been, people may not need that second job as much as they did in the past,” Fairhurst said.

To lure stable employees, retailers are having to provide more incentives like flextime scheduling and discounts on store merchandise, she said. Some seasonal workers actually choose which retailers they work for on the basis of the type of merchandise they want to purchase at an employee discount, she said.

Fairhurst said that treating employees with respect is more important than in the past.

“Companies that really don’t have a problem getting seasonal help treat their employees as if they’re valuable members of the organization, so that individuals feel they are a part of the company contributing to its overall goals,” she said.

“The problem is that the hours that have to be put in are a real detriment to people’s lifestyle choices,” Fairhurst said. “Employers are having problems finding qualified hires.”

Customers looking for more bargains and fewer hassles are pushing the Christmas shopping season earlier, a trend that dates back several years, Murray said.

“They’re shopping earlier. They’re shopping for bargains. They’re going to the Internet and mail order catalogues looking for good deals,” he said.

Despite that trend, Murray predicts the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas will still be good for retailers.

“Though there’s been a bit of a slowdown in economic growth, the economy continues to propel itself forward,” Murray said. “We’re looking for strong growth, probably around 5 percent.”

The only unusual factor of the ’99 season is the extra spending that some consumers are doing as a result of Y2K concerns, Murray said.

“There is some advanced spending as people gear up for that event.”