Retail Payrolls Sustain a New Blow as Shopping Habits Shift

The New York Times
By PATRICIA COHEN

Doors at many Macy’s, Sears and J. C. Penney stores may still be open, but some of the jobs they once supported are starting to vanish.

General merchandise stores shed 34,700 jobs in March, the government announced Friday, the single most disappointing figure in a generally disappointing jobs report.

After hitting a low point during the recession in December 2009, the retail sector has reliably been churning out more jobs. Though the Labor Department’s monthly employment summary provides only a snapshot of the labor market, this is the second month in a row that retail payrolls have registered substantial losses — a possible sign that larger structural changes are in the works.

“E-commerce and technology have absolutely changed the rules of the game and given massive amounts of power to the consumer,” said Simeon Siegel, a retail analyst at Nomura. “There is a self-help mentality now. People walk around with their phones in their hand to tell them the best model and the best price. You don’t need as many people walking around trying to convince you to buy a sweater.”

The vitality of the retail sector has been muscled out of the spotlight lately by a focus on better-paying manufacturing jobs, which President Trump sees as crucial to the revival of the middle class, particularly in the Midwest and the South. But retail outlets still employ millions of Americans and serve as an entry point into the labor force, especially for those with less education and fewer skills.

Remember that while General Motors was once the single largest employer, today Walmart is.

Yet even Walmart is having to contend with a sea change in the way people shop. The company, for instance, has been closing smaller stores in rural areas, according to Barbara Denham, a senior economist at Reis, a real estate data and analytics firm.

Jack Kleinhenz, the chief economist at the National Retail Federation, does not discount the magnitude of the transformation that is occurring in retail, but cautioned that the monthly job figures are also highly subject to temporary vagaries. “One of the challenges we have at this time of the year is the quirkiness of seasonal forces,” he said.

An unexpectedly warm February and snowy March and the late arrival of Easter could have elbowed the numbers in an uncharacteristic way.

The retail employment number, he said, does not necessarily “translate into backsliding of retail sales.”

Diane Swonk, the chief executive of DS Economics in Chicago, agreed. The falloff in hiring “is not a reflection of a consumer than can’t spend, but rather of how they spend,” she said. “Retail is one of the largest employers in the country, and it’s going to go through a pretty massive secular restructuring. We shop differently now, and no one has the right model.”

Most shopping is still done in person rather than online, but shopping patterns are shifting. Ms. Swonk mentioned research that shows consumers like to buy online but return things to bricks-and-mortar stores.

“Clearly, it’s just not one or the other, not just bricks or clicks,” she said. But the marketplace is rapidly changing and retailers “are not sure what the endgame is.”

E-commerce may cause a drop in retail jobs, but a rise in warehouse, distribution and transportation jobs.

At the same time, consumers have not only been changing how they shop, but what they buy. Ms. Denham noted that while the entire retail sector ended up down nearly 30,000 jobs, the restaurant industry showed a gain of 20,000 in March on top of steady previous growth.

“There’s been a shift in consumer spending from things to experiences,” she said, “that’s why restaurants are doing so well.”

More people shopped over Thanksgiving weekend than last year — but they spent less

About 154 million shoppers made purchases at stores or on e-commerce sites this holiday weekend, the National Retail Federation reported Sunday, a bump up from the 151 million people who last year participated in the annual barrage of Black Friday deals.

And though it is encouraging for the retail industry that more consumers opened their wallets this time around, it wasn’t all good news: Average spending per person was down to $289.19 from $299.60 in 2015.

Matt Shay, the chief executive of the National Retail Federation (NRF), attributed the decline in spending to just how deep and broad the discounts were over the four-day weekend. While the promotions offered during this period were probably preplanned and thus baked into the retailers’ sales plans, it could prove a troublesome dynamic for them if ultra-deep discounts end up being needed all season long to get people shopping.

But other factors could have contributed to the decline in per-person spending: Retailers have been spreading their Black Friday deals out over a longer stretch, so it’s possible that many people pounced on offers several days before Thanksgiving even arrived. And NRF’s survey found that about 122 million people plan to shop on Cyber Monday, up from 121 million last year. So perhaps some consumers are holding out for the fresh batch of deals that will arrive after the weekend comes to an end.

The survey results reflect the increasing importance of e-commerce in the retail landscape. This year, about 108.5 million people shopped online over the holiday season, compared with 103 million last year. Meanwhile, the number of people who shopped in stores fell to 99.1 million from 101 million last year.

Indeed, other data released this weekend offers evidence that online spending was strong on Thanksgiving and Black Friday. Adobe, which analyzed 22.6 billion visits to retail websites, reports that a record $3.34 billion was spent online on Black Friday, up 21.6 percent from the previous year. Sales on Thanksgiving Day were up 11.5 percent to $1.93 billion.

Adobe’s research found that top-selling items included iPads, Samsung 4K televisions and toys such as Lego Creator sets and the Barbie Dreamhouse.

The NRF had earlier projected that the retail industry would see a 3.6 percent increase in sales this holiday season over last year. That would be significantly better than the 3 percent growth registered in 2015. The trade group’s chief economist, Jack Kleinhenz, said Sunday that he believes that prediction “holds up pretty well” right now, even as some have asked whether the surprising election results might have altered consumers’ mind-set.

Experts say that in a presidential campaign year, we typically see that the election serves as a temporary distraction, with shoppers getting their gift-buying started a little later than they might otherwise. NRF’s survey seems to reflect that dynamic: About 23 percent of respondents said they hadn’t started their holiday shopping yet, compared with 19 percent last year. And a smaller share of people have finished their holiday shopping. This year, just 9 percent of shoppers have done so, compared with 11 percent last year.

 

November 27 at 3:53 PM

The Washington Post

Photo:Byron Siekavizza wheels his television to his car as he gets a jump-start on shopping for deals at Best Buy on Thanksgiving in Alexandria. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)