Sep. 23, 2013 at 10:31 AM ET
With forecasts predicting a somewhat lackluster holiday shopping season ahead, retailers are positioning themselves with a cautious consumer in mind.
On Monday, Wal-Mart Stores announced plans to hire 55,000 seasonal workers. It's also going to move more than 35,000 associates from temporary to part-time and another 35,000 associates from part-time to full-time. Last year, Wal-Mart said it hired more than 50,000 seasonal employees. To lure shoppers, it plans to go after sales and invest in price, the company had previously said.
Competitor Kohl's said it plans to hire more than 50,000 seasonal workers this season. While the company plans to decrease the number of seasonal workers it hires per store, it will increase the number of positions at distribution centers and credit operations.
Outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas said Monday that it did not expect holiday hiring this year to reach last year's 12-year high. In its annual forecast, the firm said while hiring won't fall significantly from last year, it would at best match the job growth seen in October, November and December of 2012.
"There are several factors that could keep holiday hiring from reaching last year’s level. While, the economy and job market are improving, it has now been four years since the recession officially ended and millions of Americans are still unemployed or underemployed. As a result, consumers remain uneasy, which is evidenced by wide monthly mood swings in confidence surveys,” said John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas.
(Read more: Real men don't shop? Not so: Retail's new frontier)
One research firm expects sales during the crucial holiday season to improve moderately.
Sales are expected to rise between 4 percent and 4.5 percent in the November to January period to a range of $963 billion to $967 billion, according to a forecast from Deloitte released on Monday. While moderate, this increase is in line with the 4.5 percent the firm saw last year.
Non-store sales, which include online, catalog and interactive TV purchases, are forecast to perform even better and rise 12.5 to 13 percent.
"We're cautiously optimistic—we've seen momentum throughout the year," said Alison Paul, vice chairman of Deloitte and retail and distribution sector leader. "Though economic news continues to be mixed, our economists believe we have positive momentum going into the holiday season."
Deloitte's release follows an earlier ShopperTrak forecast that estimated retail revenue will rise 2.4 percent this holiday season.
(Read more: Firm expects slower holiday growth in 2013)
Throughout the year, consumers have faced a long string of concerns, including continued high levels of unemployment, the expiration of a 2-percent payroll tax cut and higher gas prices.
This has been balanced out by several positives for the consumer, including a rising stock market, increasing home values and job creation.
"What you see is two different sets of attitude," Paul said. "For the well-heeled consumer, they are feeling good, so high prices or a 2-percent payroll tax—that doesn't mean much for them. But for the lower-end consumer, those are two different real impacts on their budget."
This environment has produced what Citigroup analyst Deborah Weinswig termed in late-August a very "C.H.E.A.P." consumer—a buyer who's more interested in spending on cars, housing, ecommerce and home products than on apparel, electronics or home goods. Weinswig expected the theory to last into the back half of the year.
Lens of caution
Already retailers are treading cautiously as they enter the season.
Target said Friday that it plans to hire about 20 percent fewer seasonal workers than it did last year. No doubt the discount retailer's expected staffing needs are being colored by the trends it has being seeing this year.
Target has said shoppers were hurt by this year's payroll tax hike, particularly its lower- and moderate-income customers. In its most recent ended quarter, Target saw a small decline in traffic to its stores.
(Read more:Target to hire fewer seasonal holiday workers)
"While emerging strength in the housing and automotive sectors is a long-term positive, the near-term spending on these big-ticket items is crowding out other spending particularly in today's environment in which access to consumer credit remains tight," CEO and Chairman Gregg Steinhafel told analysts in late August.
On Tuesday, Coty CEO Michele Scannavini described retailers as generally "cautious" despite their projections of higher sales at Christmas. Coty, whose products include items like Sally Hansen nail polish, Marc Jacobs fragrances and philosophy skin care, distributes products to big-box companies like Target, Walmart and Kohl's.
"So far, we didn't see any reduction in orders for what was planned for Christmas; rather, some retailers are postponing the shipments because I believe they want to have a bit more visibility on the back-to-school season," Scannavini told analysts.
After seeing its inventory increase 6.9 percent during its recent quarter due primarily to softer-than-foreseen sales trends, Wal-Mart plans to go on the offense.
In mid-August, the company's CFO and Executive Vice President Charles Holley said its "expectations for the back half of the year are through the lens of cautious consumer spending," adding that it has an aggressive plan to go after sales and invest in price.
Part of its aggressive holiday plan includes dropping the fee for its popular layaway program. Competitor Kmart, a unit of Sears Holdings, has also upped the holiday ante with its layaway program by airing the earliest holiday ad ever with 105 days to go before Christmas.
In addition to a cautious consumer, retailers will also be watching the calendar this season, which will squeeze the traditional holiday season this year.
Due to the placement of Thanksgiving this year, there will be six fewer days between the holiday and Christmas this season—a shift that could benefit shoppers.
—By CNBC's Katie Little. Follow her on Twitter @KatieLittle.
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