Now that the cobwebs of Halloween have cleared, retailers are focusing on the holiday season.
But last season's weak returns and similar prospects for this year make finding the right number of employees to hire a belated exercise in trick or treat.
The National Retail Federation projects that holiday sales will be down 1 percent from last year.
"I think it is going to be as bad as last year, for sure," said Jeff Michael, director of the Business Forecasting Center at the University of the Pacific. "We will see a seasonal hiring bump in retail like we always do, but not quite at the level we've seen in the past. I expect this holiday season will be similar to last season; it will be subdued."
Job Web site snagajob.com found that retailers, on average, plan to hire 3.1 seasonal employees this year -- 16 percent fewer than last year, according to a survey the company hired Ipsos Public Affairs to conduct.
In the Modesto area, a survey by the employment services company Manpower found that 9 percent of businesses plan to hire more employees in the fourth quarter and 15 percent plan to decrease payrolls.
The survey showed the vast majority, 72 percent, planned to maintain their current levels.
"Right now, (hiring) is flat from last year," said Corey Probst, the Modesto branch manager for Manpower. "Usually everyone is all ramped up and ready to go for the day after Thanksgiving by now."
Nationally, 53 percent of managers in the snagajob.com survey said they don't plan to hire seasonal workers.
National retailers such as Target are ramping up their holiday hiring to the same numbers as last year, but regional and smaller businesses are taking a more cautious approach.
Keller's Gifts co-owner Cherie Keller said her holiday hiring is down 30 percent from last year. She has brought on about six new employees for the Christmas season, whereas in past years she added nine or 10.
"Last year, shopping slowed down and it still has that type of rhythm," she said. "We're just anticipating November and December to be not much different than the last six months."
One of those new workers is Modesto native Kelly Parrish, who graduated this summer from Florida State University with a master's degree in accounting. The Beyer High School graduate has been looking for full-time work since then, with no luck.
"All of my (school friends), if they didn't get a job before graduation, are in the same boat as me," she said. "I've applied for close to 100 positions and have only gone on three interviews."
Parrish, who worked in retail while getting her undergraduate degree at California State University, San Diego, said she knew she probably could find seasonal holiday work. She was offered a job at J.C. Penney in San Jose, but opted for the closer-to-home position at Keller's, where her mother works one day a week.
"In both (stores) I knew people, so it really pays to know someone," she said. Her position at Keller's is full- time until the new year.
Still, Kirsten Alvord, business serv-ices supervisor with the Stanislaus Economic Development and Workforce Alliance, said the employers she works with regularly are starting their holiday hiring now without reservation.
"It's pretty much the same numbers as last year," she said. "At this point, it looks like it will be at least the same as last year, if not better."
Things Remembered, which has a store in Vintage Faire Mall, bucked the national trend and had an increase in sales during last year's holiday season.
That has spurred the company to hire about the same number of people as last year, said Kevin Knaack, the Ohio-based company's recruiting manager. The Modesto store plans to add about six workers for the season.
"Our application pool is tremendous," Knaack said. The number of candidates "is much higher than last year." Other retailers are reporting more applicants, too.
Richmond, Va.-based snagajob.com said applications in September for seasonal jobs were up 25 percent when compared with last year.
In Stanislaus County, where the unemployment rate was at 15.3 percent in September, many people are looking at holiday jobs as a stopgap until they find permanent employment.
"Every year, seasonal jobs are a way for retailers to test potential permanent workers. With an economic rebound coming, that may happen more than ever this year," said snagajob.com's sen-ior vice president of marketing, Cathy McCarthy. "Take this just as seriously as you would a career full-time search."
This year, employers in the snagajob.com survey said they'll likely hire 51 percent of seasonal workers for permanent positions, up from 46 percent last year.
"It's been tough," said Parrish, as she waited for customers behind the cash register at Keller's, "but it can only go up from here."
The Fresno Bee contributed to this report.
Bee staff writer Marijke Rowland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2284.