Desperate for holiday help, retailers give away diamond necklaces, kayaks and $5,000 vacations to attract workers

Key Points
  • Retailers, e-commerce and logistics companies are looking to hire 704,000 holiday workers this year.
  • They are sweetening the pot with cash bonuses and gift cards, as well as chances to win kayaks and diamond earrings.
  • UPS promotes the chance to convert to a permanent, full-time job as a draw.
Target Team members meet before Black Friday in Chicago.
John Gress | Corbis | Getty Images

Vacation raffles, cash bonuses, kayaks and diamond earrings are just some of the perks U.S. retailers are offering to attract holiday workers amid one of the tightest labor markets in decades.

Retailers, e-commerce and logistics companies are looking to hire 704,000 holiday workers this year — the most since 2014 when unemployment stood at around 6 percent, according to job placement and coaching firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

Couple that with a jobless rate sitting at a nearly five-decade low at 3.7 percent, and retailers have to get creative to be able to fill those jobs in time for the holiday rush. Earlier this month, Amazon said it would begin to pay a minimum wage of $15 an hour starting Nov. 1, ratcheting up pressure on other companies to raise wages or offer other incentives.

While compensation is the top consideration for most job applicants, it's not the only factor. J.C. Penney is sweetening the pot with a chance to win vacations and gift "bundles" that include sleeping bags, Bose speakers and designer watches.

"Retailers are asking, what other perks can I offer?" Melissa Hassett, vice president client delivery for job placement firm ManpowerGroup, told CNBC. "Flexible hours, ability to pick shifts, gym memberships, whatever perks are important for that store and that region are considered." employees load boxes with orders at the company's fulfillment center ahead of Cyber Monday in Tracy, California.
David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Holiday perks

For the first time, J.C. Penney is offering its holiday workers a 25 percent discount as well as the chance to win one of eight "reward packages" worth up to $5,000 each. Winners can choose from all-expense-paid vacations to Banff, Alberta; New York or Miami.

They can also choose from bundles of smaller prizes built around themes including: a technology bundle with Apple watches, AirPods, MacBooks and Bose speakers; an outdoor package complete with Trek bikes, helmets, kayaks and tent and a "glamour" package that comes with a diamond necklace, earrings and designer leather totes and wallets.

Kohl's started its holiday hiring in June, earlier than ever to get a head start on the best candidates and allow plenty of time for training. The department store is again offering its seasonal employees a 35 percent discount on certain days, but it's promoting it as a perk this year. Kohl's seasonal employees will also be eligible for gift card contests for perfect attendance.

In addition to what it calls "competitive" wages starting at $12 an hour, Target is holding $500 gift card drawings for employees and will match up to $500 in donations for a local charity throughout the holiday season.

Bonus program

Macy's seasonal employees will be eligible for a new bonus program for the first time that it made available to both year-round and holiday staff. The retailer is confident it will fill its 80,000 holiday jobs.

"We prepared for this" Macy's CEO Jeff Gennette said at the Code Commerce conference in New York last month. "When you saw the tailwinds that are helping our business, the record low unemployment, you better have a plan."

Gennette said Macy's turnover has declined from last year, which he attributes in part to the new bonus program.

While raffles and gift-card incentives are appreciated, Hassett says many employees are looking for flexible hours to work around responsibilities like care-giving, other jobs or a semi-retirement schedule. Others are looking to build an actual career in retail.

"I see retailers focus on training, and career path," she said. "Taking 'seasonal' out of their postings, giving more or less hours based on headcount, hiring in entry level but then training with additional responsibility."

While Target has committed to raising its minimum wage to $15 by 2020, CEO Brian Cornell said it's "also investing in training and development. We want to make sure we are building careers for our team members at Target, and we clearly have been striving to become the employer of choice."

A UPS worker sorts packages in New York on Dec. 18th, 2017.
Adam Jeffery | CNBC

Career paths

Shipping and logistics companies UPS and FedEx push the potential for long-term career opportunities as the biggest incentives for seasonal workers.

Seasonal jobs at UPS can pay $10.35 to $30 an hour, but its best perk for seasonal employees beyond pay is its track record for converting seasonal positions into year-round employment, UPS spokesman Glenn Zaccara told CNBC.

About 35 percent of its seasonal workforce is converted to a permanent employee, he said. "In fact, 128,000 UPSers, nearly one-third of our U.S. workforce, started working for the company in a seasonal role — including our chairman and CEO, David Abney."

FedEx spokesperson Katie Wassmer says its new Learning Inspired by FedEx (LiFE) program offers permanent workers at FedEx Express hubs Memphis, Tennessee; Indianapolis and Oakland, California, full tuition reimbursement from the University of Memphis. Wassmer says the continuing education benefit is a "particularly encouraging part of our holiday hiring story this year".

While Friday's jobs report will give more insight into how seasonal hiring is going so far, it's far from the whole picture.

In many cases, retailers and logistics companies started holiday hiring earlier than ever this year, and it's not over yet. Starting dates and hiring deadlines for seasonal work vary based on a number of factors, including position, location and company.