US retail jobs limp back in April but department store woes remain

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US retail-trade employment eked out a small gain in April following two straight months of declines, although department-store jobs remain flat as changing shopping preferences continue to take their toll on these traditional mall staples.

The retail-trade sector accounted for just 6,000 of the 211,000 overall jobs added in April, US labour department statistics showed on Friday. That comes after the sector shed a combined 56,000 jobs in February and March, a steep drop-off following two straight months of gains during the holiday shopping season. The labour department defines retail trade as establishments involved in retailing merchandise and services incidental to selling it.

Amid broader woes, the general merchandise sub-sector also managed to grab onto a small gain after five straight months of net losses, with 8,000 jobs added. Within that, other general merchandise stores — which include supercentres and warehouse clubs like Costco, which specialise in discounted or bulk items — accounted for the 8,000-job gain, while employment in department stores remained flat.

Although the flat reading is an improvement following several months of steep declines, it may not do much to allay fears that department stores — including well-known chains like Macy’s, JCPenney and Neiman Marcus — are undergoing a structural shift amid declining foot traffic that means lost jobs may never be regained.

In a recent report, Bank of America Merrill Lynch Global Research analysts speculated that their slump could prompt a significant long-term shift in the labour force, with shuttering stores across the retail sector leaving displaced employees to hunt for jobs in a new field altogether.

That has been exacerbated in particular by the move of many retailers to reduce their reliance on traditional brick-and-mortar outlets in favour of expanding their “omnichannel” platforms like digital and mobile, which have the ability to reach more potential customers but rely less on traditional human employees.

In a note on Friday, BoAML Global Research analysts noted that despite “modest gain” in the retail-trade sector, “the details suggest limited upward” momentum in labour demand.

“We remain somewhat bearish on the job market in the retail sector as we think (the) growing share of e-commerce will lead to a long-term structural shift in the demand for labour,” they added.

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