No one ever said being an economist was easy, and when it comes to trying to map the current economic recovery, it continues to be most challenging and at times perplexing. From gross domestic product and consumer confidence to housing starts and unemployment, there are myriad ways to measure where we’ve been and where we’re going. However, one of the most telling sets of data is the monthly Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey, known as JOLTS.

JOLTS collects data on job openings, hiring and “separations,” or employees leaving their jobs, giving us a much better look at all positions that are open — not filled — on the last business day of each month. A job is considered “open” only if a specific job exists, the work could start within 30 days and the firm is actively recruiting to fill the slot, thus painting a picture around business hiring intentions.

Hiring and separations are employer/employee relationships created or ended during the month. These include workers moving into and out of jobs or measures of “churn” in the labor market. All types of jobs, including full-time, part-time, seasonal and short-term, are counted. One important takeaway: If the number of workers quitting their jobs rises, which is included in separations figures, it implies that Americans are likely “confident” enough to leave their jobs and search for others. This release lags the larger Bureau of Labor Statistics monthly employment report.

Journalists, investors and traders, economists and policymakers have taken a special interest in JOLTS since the economic recovery began in June 2009. In fact, the Federal Reserve regularly cites JOLTS in discussions over whether to increase interest rates. It is one of Fed Chairwoman Janet Yellen’s favorite indicators. At a recent National Association for Business Economics policy conference, Yellen said “I am likely to supplement the data on employment and unemployment with measures of gross job flows, such as job loss and hiring, which describe the underlying dynamics of the labor market.”

With a slowly improving economy, this monthly release has become a much-followed gauge on the direction and pace of the economy. Here’s how the most recent JOLTS reports indicate that the retail industry is healthy and has returned to prerecession levels. (JOLTS data includes total retail employment for all retail sectors. NRF-defined segments, which exclude automobiles and gasoline, cannot be broken out.)

  • Retail job openings edged up for a third straight month to 539,000 in June. That was the largest number of openings in June in the past 15 years, suggesting that retailers are having success in filling jobs.
  • Hiring, which lags behind openings, increased in June to 792,000 from 782,000 jobs and was the strongest since November 2006, the month before the start of the “Great Recession.” It was also the highest level for any June since the country’s prior recession ended in November 2001. The “openings and hires measures” indicate employers are trying to fill more openings, signifying their contributions to the labor market and confidence in the economy.
Retail Hires and Openings
  • Total separations ticked up to 762,000 in June from 745,000, largely driven by workers quitting their jobs. This June had the fourth-largest separation level for any June since the series begin in 2000. While the term “quit rates” sounds negative, it has positive significance – an increase in quits implies that workers are confident enough to voluntarily leave current jobs for better ones. addition

Hires usually outnumber total separations, but during the Great Recession there were more separations than hires.

Retail Hires, Total Separations and Employment
All in all, the retail industry labor market is healthy relative to pre-recession levels, and recent trends show the retail industry and the broader labor market continue to tighten, which should put upward pressure on wages.


Until recently, we have either received mixed or disappointing economic data. However, the newfound strength in the U.S. labor market will serve as a key factor for optimism moving forward. With job growth averaging more than 200,000 a month and wage growth showing marked improvements, the U.S. economy is ripe for continued household spending.

Additionally, the rebound in retail sales in May serves as a positive indication of growth in Gross Domestic Product for the second-quarter. With consumer spending accounting for nearly 70 percent of economic growth, positive reports in our nation’s GDP will be a key determinant in the months ahead.

The economy struggled coming out of the gate in 2015 just like it did in 2014, and the economic outlook has not played out precisely as we had anticipated when we released our annual forecast earlier in the year. After a weak first quarter, the economy found its footing this spring and is expected to continue its rebound. Nonetheless, our forecast of 4.1 percent for the year will likely need to be updated to account for these changes.

This month’s full report includes these highlights:

Retail Sales

Consumer spending and retail sales rebounded in May signifying renewed momentum heading into the second half of the year.

Consumer Sentiment

June’s preliminary University of Michigan consumer sentiment index climbed 3.9 points from May’s 90.7 to 94.6, with much of the gain due to consumers’ belief that current economic conditions have improved.

Consumer Prices

The March headline Consumer Price Index rose 0.4 percent between April and May, somewhat slower than expected.

Gross Domestic Product

Net exports hampered GDP growth in the first quarter. Much of the volatility in the trade deficit was due to the West Coast port slowdown, taking off nearly 2 percentage points from GDP growth.


The June NAHB housing market index jumped to a reading of 59 from 54 in May, a much stronger than expected score.


The labor market received a surprise in June as the Bureau of Labor and Statistics reported private sector job growth of 260,000.

Retail Jobs and Openings

Employment, excluding auto, gas and restaurant sales, increased 23,800 in May to 12.81 million jobs seasonally adjusted, a gain of 242,700 from May 2014.

Personal Income and Spending

April Personal Income rose 0.4 percent and Personal Consumption Expenditures was flat. On a year-over-year basis, personal income is up 4.1 percent while consumption is up 2.7 percent.

Leading Economic Indicators

The Conference Board’s Leading Economic Index increased 0.7 percent in May, matching April’s increase.


The Year of the Goat is a hot topic among retailers and those who celebrate the Chinese New Year. Experts in Chinese astrology say that the outlook for finance and wealth is favorable but exercise caution as there will continue to be volatile political situations causing economic activity and prices to fluctuate.

The indicators outlined in February’s Monthly Economic Review suggest the same outlook. The economy is recovering but continues to be characterized by fits and starts and highs and lows; while I remain optimistic about overall growth for the retail industry in 2015, recently released economic data have come in weaker than expected — puzzling, as the latter half of 2014 showed rapid growth in several areas.

Retail sales came in January lower than expected, but it remains unclear if it is due to seasonal issues like the weather or weaker consumer demand. Consumer sentiment remains strong but continues to fluctuate, reflecting a skittish American consumer. On the other hand, January registered another solid gain in payrolls, and if the rebound in wages isn’t a one-off wonder, there is much to look forward to.

This month’s full report includes these highlights:

Retail Sales

The extra money coming from lower gas prices may be going toward savings, paying off debt or spending on services rather than retail goods and merchandise.

Retail Sales and Consumer Sentiment

The softening in retail sales and consumer sentiment poses some downside risk for consumer spending in the first quarter of 2015.


E-commerce sales continued to grow but the pace of growth slowed from 3.6 percent in the previous quarter to 2.3 percent in the fourth quarter.

Gross Domestic Product and Unemployment

GDP is expected to increase 2.7 percent in the first quarter of 2015 and the unemployment rate is set to decrease from 5.7 to 5.6 percent.

Housing Market

Attractive mortgage rates and easier credit conditions along with stronger job and income growth are reinforcing expected growth in the housing market in 2015.


As the labor market continues to expand, the unemployment rate should drop, enabling wage growth to slowly begin to increase. Wages should pick up between 2.5 and 3 percent on an annual rate in late 2015 and early 2016.

Retail Jobs and Openings

Total retail employment across all industry segments increased 45,900 to 15.6 million in January. There were 434,000 job openings in the retail industry on the last business day of December.

Personal Income and Spending

The wage and salary component of personal income improved a meager 0.1 percent in December and seems to be at odds with the strong December employment report. Nonetheless, wage growth is stronger than last year and is trending modestly higher despite December’s weak growth.

Chicago Fed National Activity Index

The index is well above zero, indicating the economy is growing above its historical trend; some inflationary pressure in the coming months is expected.


National Retail Federation

In the December 2014 Monthly Economic Review, NRF Chief Economist Jack Kleinhenz provides in-depth analysis on the latest government economic indicators, such as wages and income change, retail sales and consumer sentiment. Additionally, this members-only report features the latest data on the notable growth in Gross Domestic Product: The economy expanded at an annual rate of 5 percent in the third quarter, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis’ third estimate. This was the first time since 2003 that economic activity exceeded 4 percent in two consecutive quarters.

NRF’s Monthly Economic Review is a report for NRF and its communities’ members that includes the latest information on industry sales, providing a thorough overview of the current retail and economic climate.

Prepared by NRF chief economist Jack Kleinhenz, the report utilizes recent economic data to analyze the impact of key indicators such as energy costs and the housing market on retail sales growth.