U.S. retailers, from Amazon to J.C. Penney, have started earlier and are paying more and upping benefits in a pitched battle to hire more than 700,000 holiday workers in what is the tightest labor market in decades.
The competition to fill all of those openings is fierce. Kohl's started hiring its holiday help in June, and Amazon shook up the entire job market when it announced plans to raise its minimum wage to $15 an hour for its 250,000 U.S. employees. J.C. Penney is holding raffles for pricey vacation packages and gift bundles worth $5,000 apiece.
Help-wanted signs have dotted U.S. stores since the summer as retailers look to hire 704,000 holiday workers this year — the most since 2014, when unemployment was around 6 percent, compared with a nearly five-decade low of 3.7 percent in October, according to job placement and coaching firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.
"In July, when there is no business and no one needs additional help, every store I walked by had a help-wanted sign," said Jan Kniffen, CEO of J. Rogers Kniffen WWE and a CNBC contributor.
Walmart, the nation's largest retailer and private employer, doesn't hire seasonal workers. It instead gives its year-round employees more hours during the holidays, a strategy executives said worked for them over the previous two holiday seasons. It's also using artificial intelligence on its loading docks and installing new mobile checkouts to speed customers in and out the door.
"That is why Walmart is testing robots to check stockouts, robots to speed up truck unloading, while cutting the labor required by two-thirds. That is why every retailer is testing self-checkout in some form," Rogers said.