Retailers are entering their most important season amid a close presidential election, gridlock in Washington that could result in tax hikes and spending cuts plus an unemployment rate stuck above 8 percent. Fortunately, supported by signs of improvement in consumer confidence and home prices, Americans appear ready to spend more on gift-buying.

Just how much increased gift buying this year will affect retailers hiring part-time help varies from company to company.

Retail spending is expected to grow by 4.1 percent this holiday season over last year’s, with shoppers spending $586.1 billion, according to the latest forecast from the National Retail Federation (NRF), a retail trade group. While that 4.1 percent is slower than last year’s 5.6 percent growth, it’s still faster than the 10-year average of 3.5 percent. Online sales in particular are expected to increase by 12 percent over the 2011 holiday season, to $96 billion.

NRF president Matthew Shay said the projection of 4.1 percent growth was "the most optimistic forecast NRF has released since the recession."

"In spite of the uncertainties that exist in our economy and among consumers, we believe we'll see solid holiday sales growth this year," Shay said in a statement.

The NRF forecast is a closely watched benchmark for expectations ahead of the holiday season, which in many retailers' cases could account for one-third of annual sales. With consumer spending making up about 70 percent of the U.S. economy, whether or not Americans are willing to spend this holiday will have a major impact on the country’s economic growth.

Gains in home values and stock prices have helped boost sentiment, pushing consumer confidence to its second-highest level in nearly five years. The Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan final sentiment index rose to 78.3 in September from 74.3 in August. That’s just below May’s reading of 79.3, which was the highest since January 2008.

Cautiously optimistic about the approaching holiday season, retailers have begun their annual hunt for part-time workers and seasonal help.

The NRF predicts that retailers will add 585,000 and 625,000 seasonal employees in November and December -- roughly as many as they added last year, at 607,000.

The NRF isn't alone in seeing potentially solid job growth. John Challenger, CEO of outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, said in late September that holiday hiring over the last three months of the year would likely be up from a year ago, and could approach 700,000 jobs. However, that’s still below the pre-recession levels. Between 2004 and 2007, the average number of temporary holiday positions was 722,000.

Macy's, Inc. (NYSE: M), the second-biggest U.S. department-store chain, said Monday that it would hire around 80,000 seasonal workers this season, up 2.6 percent from last year.

Kohl's Corporation (NYSE: KSS) recently said it may hire about 52,700 holiday workers, up more than 10 percent from last year.

Toys R Us announced in late September that it expects to hire 45,000 workers over the holidays, 13 percent more than last year.

Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. (NYSE: WMT) has also announced that it will bring in 50,000 workers over the holidays.

J.C. Penney Company, Inc. (NYSE: JCP) said it would add 40,000 temporary workers, 14 percent above the 2011 figure.

Target Corporation (NYSE: TGT) and Best Buy Co., Inc. (NYSE: BBY), on the other hand, will see a decrease in hiring over 2011 numbers.

Some of these jobs will translate into permanent employment, according to Hay Group. Target retained 30 percent of its seasonal workers last year, the firm said, and Toys R Us kept 15 percent.