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New shopping paradigm changes holiday hiring habits for Rochester retailers

The seasonal workforce changes as holiday shopping habits move away from in-person shopping to "experiences" for Christmas and the ease of buying gifts with the click of a button.

Santa at ABC and Toy Zone
Abigail Bagameri, 3, of Rochester, and her mom talk with Santa on Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2022, at ABC and Toy Zone in Rochester.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
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ROCHESTER — Christmas lists are changing.

Dollies and fire engines have been down-listed in favor of iPhones and “experiences.”

And how holiday gifts are purchased has changed the way retailers look at hiring for the season. While major brick-and-mortar retailers still look for seasonal employees, the search for workers who put in extra hours in November and December has shifted to other business sectors, and has seen a decline for some in-person retailers.

No help wanted

ABC Toys in Rochester has hired one worker for the holiday season, and he mostly sits and poses for photos with kids.

ABC Toys' Santa Claus, Jerry Julian, is Rochester’s current longest running Santa worker starting back at Apache Mall in 2003. Julian is not a resident of Rochester though — he lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado, outside of the holiday season.

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Before coming to Rochester, Julian started his Santa career in Bellingham, Washington. Since retiring from electrician work with Colorado Springs Utilities, working as Santa in Rochester each holiday season has been fulfilling for Julian.

“It was during that second year, I just got the big memo in my heart, that this is what I need to do, according to the good Lord," Julian said. "I feel like I am one of the richest men in the whole world, not in currency, but because I get so much love and respect for the people and the kids when here in Rochester that's really magic stuff,” said Julian.

Julian, perhaps the best-known Santa in Rochester, has developed quite a following. People who were children sitting on his lap in the early 2000s are now bringing their own children with a hope of landing on the “nice” list.

Santa at ABC and Toy Zone
Abigail Bagameri, 3, of Rochester, talks with Santa on Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2022, at ABC and Toy Zone in Rochester.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin

Changes and a big year

Steve Nordhus, owner of ABC & Toy Zone, said people come to his store as much to buy as for the experience. This is especially true in the wake of the pandemic with customers talking about travel as a gift to the family instead of toys and games. Hence the “experience” of Santa as a draw to the store.

While the “experience” has become a common Christmas gift list item, that hasn’t stopped Nordhus from finding some retail success in a tough market. Last year’s holiday season, he said, proved to be a “great storm” for holiday shopping, particularly when it comes to support for locally owned businesses over big box retailers and online shopping.

Santa at ABC and Toy Zone
Santa on Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2022, at ABC & Toy Zone in Rochester.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin

“I am a competitive person and when you have a great year like that, I always want to beat last year's sales,” Nordhus said. “I drive everything possible to be able to do that. I don't know if we'll ever see a year like that again, because people are spending more money on experiences now than at home.”

Online Christmas and COVID

The holiday season has always been a popular time for job growth within the retail sector. But over the last three years that trend has changed as the growth of online shopping and restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic changed people’s shopping habits from in person to more and more online shopping.

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The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development has gathered data on retail sector hirings from October to December since 2016. The hiring numbers in Southeast Minnesota for seasonal workers in retail showed steady growth month by month with an average of 12,500 people being hired over October to December each year.

But retail hiring has slowed since 2019 in Southeast Minnesota during those months. While 12,000 people are still hired for seasonal work each year, some of those jobs are attached to a growing trend in online shopping rather than in-person shopping.

While last year retail shopping for the holidays did cause an uptick in supporting local businesses, this year has been a return to trends that were seen before COVID arrived. The one workforce that has constantly seen a rise in hiring during the holiday season is transportation and logistics drivers, specifically in big companies such as Amazon, FedEx and UPS.

This year, UPS planned to hire 60,000 to 100,000 employees for both driver and warehouse jobs prior to the start of the holiday season this September. The need for privatized transportation and logistics jobs has surged thanks to online shopping. Over the last few years, UPS has had an annual "Brown Friday,” which has been both an in-person and virtual hiring event across the country to increase the number of drivers for holiday deliveries.

Nana Gogo Toybrary
Pavs Kumar, owner of Nana Gogo Toybrary, gives a tour to Jessica Cormican, a job candidate, on Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022, at the Rochester business.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

Getting foot traffic

Not all hiring is related to online shopping. Target corporation, for example, had a nationwide seasonal goal of hiring 100,000 employees beginning in October.

On a smaller scale, Nana Gogo Toybrary, a new business in Rochester that allows people to experience new toys without buying them, has also been looking for more part-time help for the holidays. The toybrary opened this last August and has seen a lot of foot traffic from families.

“We've grown organically, we've been really lucky with the interest that people have had based on the values, our business shares,” said Pavitra Kumar, owner of Nana Gogo Toybrary. “To be honest, I think the hiring part has been a challenge even with high community interest. I think part time is a little bit of a challenge and maybe it's a learning curve for us as a new business.”

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While Kumar is still looking for additional people to hire beyond the holiday season at the toybrary, that has not kept her from organizing holiday events at Nana Gogo to grow people’s interest in the business and supply that experience customers seek.

“We just want to do something warm and cozy and memorable for little kids and their families,” Kumar said. “Nana Gogo is a warm cozy space for kids and their families to make friends. This is an opportunity to get up that much to come in in a cozy setting, meet Santa Claus, and really feel this holiday and festive cheer.”

Nana Gogo Toybrary
Andrew Youssef, 5, plays at Nana Gogo Toybrary on Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022, in Rochester.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

Related Topics: RETAILBUSINESSROCHESTER
Theodore Tollefson is a business reporter for the Post Bulletin. He is originally from Burnsville, Minn., and graduated from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls with a bachelor's degree in journalism in December 2020. Readers can reach Theodore at 507-281-7420 or ttollefson@postbulletin.com.
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