Caution has become the rule as retailers tiptoe toward the holiday season.

This story first appeared in the October 1, 2013 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Shoppers are feeling less confident, sales growth is slowing and inventories still appear to be too high for demand. Add to that the drumbeat of bad news — from chemical weapons in Syria to a possible shutdown in Washington — and retailers are being extra careful to step lightly.

To adjust, companies are pulling back on seasonal hiring and beginning to cut prices, perhaps paying dearly to clear the way for future deliveries.

“It’s like a succession of left jabs and the roundhouse right has not been thrown,” said Arnold Aronson, managing director of retail strategies at Kurt Salmon. “But after a lot of jabs, certainly chief executive officers are being safe rather than sorry. They’re taking a bit more conservative stance. They’d rather chase business than be caught with excess inventory and bloated payrolls if things start to get as bad as they could get.”

That attitude is clear in the holiday hiring outlook. Outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc. said seasonal job gains in retail would “at best match” year-ago hiring for the final three months of 2012.

Macy’s Inc. is planning more aggressively than most and said Monday it would hire 83,000 seasonal associates, up 3.8 percent from 80,000 a year ago. This year, 6,600 of the seasonal jobs will be in the company’s four online fulfillment centers, demonstrating the importance of e-commerce to the growth of so many retailers.

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Target Corp., on the other hand, intends to hire 70,000 seasonal workers, after heading into Christmas 2012 with plans to hire as many as 90,000 workers. “This year, we’re taking a slightly different approach that reflects recent trends in holiday shopping patterns and input from our year-round team members,” Target said.

The company is offering more hours to year-round employees and said “the busy periods are busier than ever, while the early part of December is quieter.”

Kohl’s Corp. said it would hire more than 50,000 seasonal associates, or 40 per store, this year. That’s down from 52,700, or 41 per store, last year.

“You’re going to see anemic growth,” predicted Craig Johnson, president of Customer Growth Partners, of the holiday season. “The only question is how anemic. Right now things seem to be soft and they’re particularly soft at the mall.” Department stores are being hit specifically, with the weakness reaching from J.C. Penney and Sears up to Nordstrom and Saks Fifth Avenue, he said. “It’s not a disaster, sales aren’t hitting a stone wall…it’s just slow,” Johnson said.

The culprit, according to the consultant, is tepid growth in disposable income, with the possibility of a government shutdown and costs associated with President Obama’s health-care overhaul having some impact on the fringe.

“Ninety percent of the jobs that have been created since January are all part-time or temporary jobs,” Johnson noted. “If you have a full-time job and you’ve been in it for a while, you spend against both needs and wants, but if you only have a part-time job or a temporary job, you just focus on the needs.”

Retailers are already working hard to grab shoppers’ attention with promises of big discounts — a harbinger perhaps of even more aggressive promotions come the holiday season.

“We believe that the retail environment remains difficult, as evidence by the promotional cadence, with a greater likelihood that there will be excess inventory to clear into quarter-end,” said UBS stock analyst Roxanne Meyer in a research note.

Meyer, who did store checks at the Garden State Plaza mall in New Jersey this past weekend, said 80 percent of the retailers she covers were more promotional than a year earlier. Abercrombie & Fitch, Aéropostale, American Eagle, Ann Taylor, Chico’s, Gap and Urban Outfitters were all more promotional than a year ago.

Retailers might have to continue to shout to be heard.

The Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan Surveys of Consumers’ Index of Consumer Sentiment fell to 77.5 last month from 82.1 in August. The survey found that, “confidence fell…as consumers were more likely to anticipate a slower pace of economic growth, fewer job opportunities and less favorable personal financial prospects.”

That makes a Merry Christmas that much harder for retailers.