TWIN FALLS — Despite unemployment around 2.3 percent, local retailers didn’t have too hard of a time finding people looking to line their pockets with a little extra cash this holiday season.
Employers such as Target, Costco and Kmart ramped up their hiring efforts weeks ago, and there are few seasonal positions still available. Most of the seasonal helpers don’t start until later this month, while smaller businesses plan to plow through the holiday busyness by boosting the hours of their regular staff.
Retail employment has had its ups and downs over the years. According to the Idaho Department of Labor, over the past 25 years, the number of retail workers in south-central Idaho has increased about 30 percent. In 2017, retail accounted for 11.4 percent of all employment for the eight-county region — and 12.8 percent of employment in Twin Falls County, where about half of the region’s retail jobs are located.
The fourth quarter of the year is also one where retail reports a boost in employment, though the third quarter is also high with back-to-school shopping, Regional Economist Jan Roeser said. The increase is more noticeable in Twin Falls County.
“People go to the larger areas for things such as Christmas shopping,” Roeser said.
But the retail climate is changing. In past years, it wasn’t uncommon for the county to see retailers boost their combined fourth-quarter average employment by 4 percent or higher. In 2017, the region had a fourth-quarter increase of just a half a percent; in Twin Falls County, retail employment was up 2.5 percent from the average of the previous three quarters.
“More and more — especially with these Amazon Prime accounts — there’s less physical shopping going on,” Roeser said.
Still, some companies have made changes in order to meet customer’s demands for convenience. This year, the Twin Falls Target has hired more than 60 seasonal workers, largely to pull product and fulfill its orders for free two-day shipping starting Black Friday, store Manager Lee Andersen said.
But more sales online doesn’t necessarily equate to more jobs — especially when it comes to smaller businesses on tight budgets.
The Brass Monkey downtown launched its website in September 2016 in preparation for the Main Avenue reconstruction. The online ordering picks up around Christmastime just as the foot-traffic does, owner Kindsey Taylor said. But she didn’t have plans to bring on any seasonal hires to her three-person staff (which includes herself).
“We usually just ramp up everybody’s hours,” Taylor said.
Her business doesn’t hire seasonal workers because the training time wouldn’t be worth it when the staff is so small, she said. Taylor is extending her store’s hours in December to include 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday. The Brass Monkey employees typically understand that in the retail business, the holiday season is going to be the busiest, she said.
Average retail employment reached a high point in the fourth quarter of 2016, both regionally and for Twin Falls County. The regional retail employment hit 10,253, and Twin Falls County’s peaked at 5,061 during that time. For the second quarter of 2018 — the most recent data available — that had dropped to 4,920 in Twin Falls County and 10,026 for the eight-county region.
Recent closures have affected retail and its seasonal employment, Roeser said. Macy’s, which closed early this year, used to be a big seasonal hirer, she said. And King’s Variety closed all of its stores in 2017.
“They were a big part of our rural communities,” Roeser said.
Since the Recession, Twin Falls has also lost a number of smaller businesses and gift shops. Small businesses that close at 6 p.m. are at risk of losing customers to the internet, Roeser said, because a lot of customers are shopping at night.
But there’s hope on the horizon. The National Retail Federation announced this month it expects retail sales — excluding automobiles, gasoline and restaurants — to increase 4.3 percent to 4.8 percent over 2017. Last year, retailers of clothing, jewelry, toys and games made more than 20 percent of their annual sales between November and December.
“Thanks to a healthy economy and strong consumer confidence, we believe that this holiday season will continue to reflect the growth we’ve seen over the past year,” federation President and CEO Matthew Shay said in a statement. “While there is concern about the impacts of an escalating trade war, we are optimistic that the pace of economic activity will continue to increase through the end of the year.”
Nationally, retailers were expected to add as many as 650,000 new seasonal positions this holiday season.