When a big local retailer like JCPenney or Gordmans closes its doors, it becomes another chapter in the “retail apocalypse” storyline that predicts the end of brick-and-mortar shopping.
For Donna, a 41-year-old from Bloomington, it just means another place she can’t look for a job.
Donna, who asked GLT not use her last name to not jeopardize her job search, can’t find a job in retail in Bloomington-Normal. Big-box stores tell her they’re not hiring, and if she doesn’t time it right she’s up against a flood of younger competition—college students and high schoolers.
“It’s amazing how you go out one day and the shop is there, and you go out the next day and the shop is gone,” said Donna, who has a 9-year-old daughter. “It’s just a never-ending battle.”
Donna is feeling what the employment data has been showing for months—a decline in local retail jobs. Bloomington-Normal has lost 500 retail jobs in the past year, government data show. The 9,400 retail jobs in November (most recent month available) was the lowest for any November since at least 2000. Overall the local economy actually added jobs this year, and the jobless rate is a low 3.9 percent.
Nationwide, as the economy added 2.1 million jobs in 2017, the retail trade lost 67,000 jobs. Those job losses have hit women particularly hard while largely sparing men who work in retail, research shows.
The conventional wisdom is that retail isn’t dying—it’s changing. While traditional retail jobs vanish, the thinking goes, Amazon warehouse, package-delivery and other e-commerce jobs take their place.
Still, for job-seekers like Donna, this in-between period is rocky. And she’s already tried one smart move—education. She earned her associate’s degree in 2013 so she could become a legal assistant. But she hasn’t been able to land a job in that field either. Her phone is always by her side, waiting for a call from one of the many retailers where she’s applied or put out feelers.
“It’s tough out there,” she said.
Retail trade makes up around 1 in 10 jobs in the Bloomington-Normal economy. The real story is that retail hiring is not growing as fast as other industries, said Mike Doherty, a senior economist and policy analyst at the Illinois Farm Bureau who has studied the Bloomington-Normal economy.
“Our educational and health services jobs have really been the engine that’s been pulling up our numbers over 2017, and rather substantially,” Doherty said. “Right behind them are professional and business services jobs, like licensed professionals. We’ve had a rebound there too.”
Doherty noted that retailers expected to hire fewer seasonal workers for the holiday shopping rush. The National Retail Federation said retailers were expected to hire between 500,000 and 550,000 temporary workers this holiday season, down from last year’s 575,000.
“Overall, I’d say it looks like there’s pressure on these stores due to e-commerce to not increase their total staff,” said Doherty.
Department stores are simply not as popular as they once were, said Gary Hunter, a marketing professor and retail expert at Illinois State University. Bloomington’s Eastland Mall has seen the closure of big stores like Macy’s and JCPenney. (The mall plans to redevelop those sites.)
Those closures, coupled with the shift to e-commerce, help explain the loss of traditional retail jobs, Hunter said. Generally, retail jobs have grown and shrunk with the rest of the economy, he said. Now that’s changed; the government’s projected growth rate for all occupations is about 7 percent between 2016 and 2026, but it’s only 2 percent for retail sales, he said.
“It’s growing, but it’s growing slower than it has in the past,” Hunter said.
Women Taking The Brunt
The shifting retail landscape is affecting men and women differently, according to a 2017 study from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR). Women lost 160,300 jobs in retail between October 2016 and October 2017, IWPR found, while men actually gained 106,000 jobs.
“It was a shock to us,” said Heidi Hartmann with IWPR, who worked on the study.
One explanation is that there are different types of retail jobs, and they’re faring differently in the age of Amazon. The U.S. shed 90,000 general merchandising jobs in 2017—the retail jobs women are most likely to hold. Meanwhile, building materials and garden supply stores gained 28,000 jobs during 2017, with men benefiting most from that growth.
“It has devastating effects on women,” said Hartmann. “Women often rely on these retail jobs. They’re often part-time, which can help them with scheduling family obligations like child care, school schedules, and all of that. And many women look for nearby retail jobs in the malls and stores because it’s a short commute from their homes.”
“For women, who disproportionately bear the share of family care, whether it’s children or older relatives, retail is often a go-to job,” she added.
What Is A Retail Job?
Rob Karr, president and CEO of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, is quick to push back on the retail apocalypse storyline. He noted that 2017 holiday sales increased by a better-than-expected 5.5 percent over 2016.
Retail has long been the most evolutionary of all business sectors, he said. E-commerce is fast-growing but only represent 1 in 10 of total retail sales, Karr said. Retailers are figuring out they can’t be just brick-or-mortar or online; they must be both, he said.
And the way we count retail jobs needs to adjust to this new reality, Karr said.
“We need to count transportation and distribution. We need to count technology-type jobs, data-gathering jobs. We need to count HR. There’s a lot we need to count in retail that historically we haven’t looked at,” Karr said. “That’s something we all have to focus more on. It’s not just the point-of-sale.”
Indeed, despite adding jobs overall, Illinois statewide lost 12,600 retail jobs between November 2016 and 2017. The state added 11,000 transportation and warehousing jobs during that same time.
“Retail is changing so rapidly that everyone’s lost sight of what’s going on behind the scenes,” Karr said.
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