Image: Radio Shack employee helps customer
Tony Gutierrez  /  AP file
The personal touch counts. When an assistant manager at a Carrollton, Texas, Radio Shack found out that Carlos Penate, 18, was looking for some extra holiday cash, it was suggested he go from shopper to sales associate. Two weeks later, Penate was hired.
updated 10/22/2009 5:28:58 PM ET 2009-10-22T21:28:58

If you're hunting for holiday work, you may have better luck this year but pickings will still be slim for would-be workers hoping to snag extra Christmas cash.

Retailers slashed their hiring last Christmas, bringing on roughly 380,000 seasonal employees — half the number they hired the year before and the fewest since 1989.

This year may be better, but the outlook is still cloudy.

Only 19 percent of major retailers responding to a survey by Aon Consulting said they will hire more workers this season, while 44 percent plan to hire fewer and 37 percent intend to hire the same number.

The good news? There are retail gigs if you play your cards right, and many don't require years of experience behind a register. Even better? You won't need to pack on 50 pounds, grow a white beard and bring your own Santa suit. (But being jolly might help.)

Here are tips from experts to make your application rise to the top.

Customer service
Whether you have actual retail experience or you showcase your people skills, play up previous work that relates to customer service.

"Customer service experience is, by far, the most important criterion that everyone is looking for," said Patrick Tomlinson, senior vice president with Aon, based in Chicago.

Talk up how your personality lets you remain calm in high-stress situations (Black Friday, anyone?) and show empathy to frazzled and frustrated shoppers. If your work experience includes internal communications or anything that put you in touch with irate clients — even years ago — highlight that on your application or during an interview.

Experience not needed
Believe it or not, some store managers aren't just looking for retail veterans. Sometimes, a good personality and a strong work ethic can get you the job.

"We're looking for hardworking, reliable employees who want to help shoppers find the perfect gift for the special child in their lives," said spokeswoman Jennifer Albano at Toys R Us Inc. The country's largest toy store plans to hire about 35,000 seasonal employees this year to do everything from stock shelves to ring up sales.

The chain wants to hire people who love customers and a fast-paced atmosphere for temporary sales jobs, and detail-focused organizers to work behind the scenes. Albano said Toys R Us considers retail experience a plus but not a requirement.

Human connections
You can apply for a job in seconds online, but Aon's researchers found merchants were most likely to hire people referred by employees and walk-ins who apply.

That's because a manager who hears a current employee talk up a candidate can ask questions and learn why someone might be a good fit. Face-to-face time with a manager is also helpful, Tomlinson said, but make sure you visit when business isn't brisk so the manager has time to talk with you.

Flexibility
One of the fastest ways to get your application tossed in the trash is to limit the days or times you can work. The more limitations — say, being available alternate Monday afternoons — the harder it is for retailers to schedule you.

Sometimes child care, school or your regular job can preclude being available around the clock. But the more flexible and available you are, the better chance you've got of getting hired.

Start small
Big box stores have big established work forces, and that can mean they need less part-time holiday help.

"If you say, 'I've got to go to a big store, because they have the most jobs,' that's not necessarily true," Tomlinson said.

Check out locally owned stores and smaller chains that have smaller full-time staffs. Discounters and other low-price stores are expected to do relatively well as shoppers try to save cash while still giving gifts.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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