Linda Millis' first day on the job at the Container Store felt like playing Santa Claus. She came in at 9 p.m., took down existing displays...

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DALLAS — Linda Millis’ first day on the job at the Container Store felt like playing Santa Claus.

She came in at 9 p.m., took down existing displays and turned 2,500 square feet of space into a “Gift Wrap Wonderland.” By the time she finished at 5 a.m., she knew she wanted to stay.

“The excitement and fun were completely contagious,” she said.

Millis was a seasonal employee in 2003 — one of the small army of temporary salespeople who hit the retail front lines every holiday season.

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Many are students, retirees or homemakers who want extra cash and merchandise discounts, which can run as high as 40 percent off regular prices. And some, like Millis, become permanent employees. She’s now visual sales manager at the Galleria store.

Whatever their motivation, potential holiday hires should find good opportunities this year.

Nationwide, 58 percent of hiring managers surveyed by CareerBuilder.com said they plan to hire extra people in the fourth quarter to meet demands of holiday and end-of-the-year wrap-ups. Twenty-eight percent expect to increase pay levels for seasonal employees over last year.

The National Retail Federation said last month that it expects November and December sales to increase 5 percent from the same period last year.

About one-fifth of annual retail-industry sales occur during the holidays. Employers must have a solid team on hand for this most profitable time of the year.

The CareerBuilder survey, however, qualified its findings by pointing out uncertainty created by hurricanes Katrina and Rita and rising energy prices. Although early indicators are good, the verdict is still out on whether those factors will dampen consumers’ shopping enthusiasm.

Most companies are wrapping up their holiday hiring now to have employees in place by the weekend before Thanksgiving. Both Pier 1 and the Container Store say they like to hire customers, who are more likely to know the merchandise.

“Our customers make great salespeople during the holidays because they like our products and they like our stores,” said Mitch Weatherly, executive vice president of stores for Pier 1. “For them, it’s a labor of love.”

Similarly, the Container Store mailed out 100,000 invitations this fall to customers who’ve shopped in the store’s gift-wrap section to attend special holiday hiring events.

Potential holiday workers should also think outside the department-store box.

Any place that sells popular gift items such as cellphones or other electronics is a good bet for needing holiday help.

And remember that holiday retail employment isn’t confined to sales.

Maureen Marshall, regional director in Manpower Inc.’s Dallas office, is busy this time of year helping the “back end” of the business ramp up with temporary staffers in call centers, warehouses and distribution centers — more important now that shoppers do more buying online.

“If a product is really selling, companies need people to help in warehouses and call centers to meet rush orders,” she said.

For students and others looking to get started on a career in retail, holiday jobs offer a chance to observe the business firsthand and chalk up face time with customers.

Many companies offer crash-course training in retail sales during the holidays. Temporary staffers might get a chance to do a little networking, too.

Pier 1 has a “holiday helpers” program in which employees at the company’s Fort Worth, Texas, headquarters volunteer to work in area stores. Managers from areas as diverse as accounting and information technology may pitch in at nearby stores during the busy season.

Working during the holidays can be tiring and at times challenging — but it’s also an opportunity to learn, Millis says. Many shoppers are in stores this time of year because they have to shop, not because they love to browse.

“Your job is to help people make that decision so they can feel good about the product,” she said.