More than three-fourths (79 percent) of retailers expect an increase in sales this holiday season – the highest percentage seen since the financial downturn. That’s according to the seventh annual retail holiday survey released today by Hay Group, a global management consultancy.

This confidence in the 2013 holiday season is also reflected in retailers’ plans for hiring. In fact, 25 percent of retailers expect to hire more seasonal workers than they did in 2012 and another 61 percent are planning to hire at about the same level.

“Retailers are planning for a very merry holiday season in 2013,” said Craig Rowley, Vice President and Global Practice Leader for Hay Group’s Retail practice. “Even so, there is a sense of only cautious optimism in the air, particularly in sectors like apparel and general merchandising that have experienced stagnant sales in recent months. Coming off of a sluggish back-to-school shopping season, retail organizations are keeping a keen eye on the economy and consumer confidence as they head into the 2013 holiday season.”

Correspondingly, a vast majority (87 percent) of retailers cited general economic conditions as the factor that they are most concerned about negatively impacting sales this holiday season. Nonetheless, retailers’ long-term plans reflect continued confidence in the health of the sector, with 30 percent of retailers reporting that they expect to hire at least one-fourth (25 percent) of their seasonal hires as full-time staff after the holiday season.

Hay Group’s survey, in its seventh year, analyzed responses from 23 major U.S. retailers including Zale Corporation, Sports Authority, Hot Topic Inc., Petco Animal Supply Inc. and Stage Stores in order to understand retailers’ plans for the 2013 holiday season.

Among the highlights from the September 2013 Hay Group survey:

Omnichannel Strategy Remains under Construction. Despite an increasing industry focus on omnichannel retailing, only 14 percent of retailers reported having an omnichannel strategy in place; the majority (64 percent) said their omnichannel strategy is “still in progress.” “Customers are increasingly demanding a seamless shopping experience across the web, in store catalogues and at brick-and-mortar locations,” said Maryam Morse, National
Practice Leader for Hay Group’s Retail practice. “Retailers that have an omnichannel strategy in place this holiday season will have a distinct competitive advantage to those that are still working very hard to catch up.”

Affordable Care Act Poised to Have Little Impact on Hiring. The majority (78 percent) of retailers reported that the Affordable Care Act will have no effect on hiring this holiday season. Those that did report an impact said it would lead to less full time workers (9 percent), more part time workers (9 percent) or no guaranteed time for workers (4 percent). “Retailers are in ‘thinking mode’ when it comes to the Affordable Care Act, evaluating the total cost to their organization and weighing that against staffing, brand and other business needs,” added Rowley.

Retailers Plan to Invest More in Employees. As unemployment levels creep downward, companies are expecting to pay more to attract and retain talent this holiday season. In fact, 22 percent of retailers reported planning to increase wages for seasonal talent, with 17 percent expecting to raise hourly pay $0.05-$0.15 over 2012 levels and another 5 percent planning to raise hourly pay $0.16-$0.30 when compared to last year’s hire rates. Incentives and benefits are also expected to go up. Discounts remain the most popular reward, with 87 percent of retailers giving employees reduced prices on store merchandise, compared to 71 percent last year. Thirty percent are also promising flexible schedules to seasonal staff, up from 21 percent in 2012.

“Strong sales expectations will have a ripple effect in retail this holiday season, as companies prepare for an influx of seasonal shoppers,” added Morse. “With the dust from the economic downturn finally settling, all eyes will be on consumer behavior, as retailers work to fulfill and track orders between channels, and determine the best approach to respond to changing customer demands going forward.”