The Retail Job Apocalypse Has Been Postponed

Sure, there's bad news -- just ask department stores -- but it's hardly the expected collapse.

Dollar signs.

Photographer: Jim R. Bounds/Bloomberg

You may remember, early this year, a spate of gloomy reportage about the coming collapse of retail jobs due to automation and online shopping. This wasn't just a dystopian forecast: Employment in the retail sector fell for seven straight months starting in January. A streak like that hadn't happened outside of a recession since the early days of World War II.

U.S. Adds 228,000 Jobs in Nov., Jobless Rate 4.1%

Since August, though, retail employment is up by an estimated 28,200 jobs, with 18,700 added just in November (these numbers are seasonally adjusted, meaning that the increase reflects something more than the usual Christmas-season retail hiring binge).

Retail Jobs

Payroll employment, retail trade, seasonally adjusted

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Note: Y-axis does not go to zero

As you can see, it's not much of a rebound. Retailing employment is still growing more slowly than employment in the rest of the economy. But it's not spiraling downward. Not yet, at least.

A lot of the focus this year has been on shopping-mall stalwarts such as department stores and clothing retailers, which have been struggling. But that doesn't mean that every retailer has been. Here's what's happened to employment since 2000 in those and three other retailing sectors that overlap with them to some extent:

Some Up, Some Down

Payroll employment, seasonally adjusted

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Department stores and electronics and appliance stores have been in long declines; clothing and clothing accessories stores seem to have gone in and out of style. Nonstore retailers (mainly online retailers and mail-order houses) have after a long post-dot-com hangover been adding jobs at a fast pace but from a low base. Warehouse clubs and supercenters have made spectacular job gains since 2000, but they've been pretty flat lately. And yes, in case you're wondering, "all other general merchandise stores" -- the category that includes the likes of Dollar General and Family Dollar -- has seen big employment gains since 2000 but declines since January.

Retailing is always going through these kinds of sectoral shifts, and the fact that lots of stores have been closing does not in itself signal a looming collapse of retail employment. That said, retailing's share of overall nonfarm employment has actually been declining for decades: 1

Retail Peaked a While Ago

Retail employment as a percentage of nonfarm payroll employment

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Note: Y-axis does not go to zero.

The 1970s and 1980s, it appears, were retailing's boom decades -- relative to the rest of the economy, at least. The subsequent reallocation of employment away from retail that began in the early 1990s shows no signs of abating. It may be accelerating. But that's not quite the same thing as a retail apocalypse.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
  1. The BLS data on retail employment goes back to 1939, but the 1940s saw such big swings as retail workers were diverted into manufacturing jobs during World War II and returned after the war's end that I decided to start the chart in 1950.

To contact the author of this story:
Justin Fox at

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Brooke Sample at

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