WASHINGTON — Retailers increased payrolls in November in anticipation of the holiday shopping season as the U.S. unemployment rate dropped unexpectedly and employers cut the fewest jobs since the recession started.

This story first appeared in the December 7, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Department stores added 7,500 jobs to employ 1.52 million people, recouping part of the revised 12,400 jobs cut from payrolls in October, the Labor Department said Friday. Specialty stores added 900 jobs to employ 1.41 million workers, after a revised decline of 600 jobs in October and an increase in payrolls in September.

The unemployment rate fell to 10 percent in November after reaching a 26-year high of 10.2 percent in October, and the economy shed just 11,000 jobs, following three months of job losses averaging 135,000 a month.

Although losses continued in manufacturing and construction, the private services sector added jobs for the first time since December 2007.

“It is mostly genuine good news,” said Nigel Gault, chief U.S. economist for IHS Global Insight. “The report says that we are nearer the bottom in the labor market than we thought. We are not yet convinced that employment has troughed, nor that the unemployment rate has peaked, but we can now be more confident that even if the bottom is not quite here, it will be no later than the first quarter of 2010.”

Economists said the improved employment picture in November in the department and specialty store sector was due in large part to temporary hiring for the holidays.

“Retailers normally hire more seasonal help in December,” said Scott Hoyt, senior director of consumer economics for Moody’s Economy.com. “The question is not whether they will lay workers off, but how many they will hire.”

Hoyt said the overall employment picture for apparel and accessories specialty stores “looks significantly weaker than for department stores,” pointing to a year-over-year decline of 50,600 specialty store jobs in November. Department stores had 2,000 more jobs on payrolls this November compared with a year ago.

Textile mills that produce apparel fabric added 500 jobs to employ 121,600 workers. Textile product mills, which make industrial and home furnishing fabric, eliminated 1,100 jobs to employ 123,100, while apparel factories cut 1,800 jobs to 160,200.