NEW YORK (AP)—The holiday hiring picture looks a bit merrier this year.

Macy’s, Toys R Us, Pier 1, American Eagle Outfitters and Borders all plan to hire more temporary holiday workers this year than last, emboldened by several months of sales gains and a slowly improving economy.

The jobs probably won’t be enough to be a dent in the nation’s nearly 10 percent unemployment rate, but for Americans desperate for some work, they’re far more than an early Christmas present.

Retailers will add between 550,000 and 650,000 jobs this holiday season, according to an updated forecast from the national outsourcing firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas, said spokesman James Pedderson. That’s significantly more than the 501,400 added last year. But it’s still well below the 720,800 added in 2007, just before the recession began.

The holidays are crucial to retailers, accounting for 40 percent of annual sales in some cases. Retailers have seen modest sales gains in recent months, easing fears of a double-dip recession. Another positive sign: Americans’ incomes have risen slightly but steadily this year.

Most retailers plan to hire more workers or the same amount as last year, according to a survey of 20 major U.S. retailers, including J.C. Penney Co., Abercrombie & Fitch Co., and Pier 1.

Retail experts have predicted Americans will spend 1 to 3 percent more this holiday season—less than the 4 percent year-to-year growth in healthier times, but better than nothing as far as the stores as concerned.

Some of them are being aggressive to take advantage. Others are making more modest adjustments. Macy’s last week said it was increasing seasonal hiring slightly to about 65,000 because it expects better holiday revenue than last year. Pier 1, American Eagle and Borders also said they are slightly increasing their seasonal staff this year. Other big chains, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Best Buy Co., expect hiring to be flat.

They’ll have a big pool of people to pick from.

Retail jobs can range from minimum wage, $7.25 per hour, for those with little experience to $25 to $40 an hour for experienced sales leaders at high-end stores.

But while part-time work might help make ends meet, the bigger picture is murkier. There is still heavy competition for any job.

An average of 4.7 people vie for each open job, according to Heidi Shierholz, an economist with the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank in Washington, D.C. The economy lost 8.4 million jobs in 2008 and 2009 and the private sector isn’t creating enough new positions to replace them.

Even temporary jobs are welcome in that environment, Shierholz said.

“It can definitely make people’s holiday season ­better.”

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