As many experts will tell you, it wasn’t really a retail apocalypse: It was a nuclear mall-tdown. The hardest-hit sectors are those we often associate with shopping malls, such as clothing, department, toy and electronics stores. Remove such stores, in fact, and you’ll find retailers added tens of thousands of jobs since early 2017. Building materials, groceries, auto parts and gas-station convenience stores led the way.
If you look for jobless hordes who have recently left fraying retailers, you won’t find many. The numbers are volatile. Our analysis of Labor Department data found no evidence of a mass exodus from mall-related retail since 2017. The official numbers back this up.
The unemployment rate for former retail workers remains almost identical to the national one.
Any rise in retail workers leaving their jobs seems to be related to them quitting, rather than getting fired or laid off. Quitting is generally considered healthy; it shows workers are confident they can get better offers.
Folks who lost their jobs when their local Dressbarn, Forever 21 or Payless ShoeSource went under probably landed another job in retail relatively quickly. Retail has higher employee turnover than all but a few industries. The exceptions include construction, food services and a business category that includes temp workers.
If they’re not getting laid off and not entering unemployment, whither are the multitudes who vanished from the retail payrolls during the apocalypse?
We couldn’t be sure either, until we looked at the other side of the equation: people getting jobs as retail salespeople. There are a lot of forces at work, but we’ll risk a little oversimplification here: The refugees of the retail apocalypse are the young men and women who would have gotten their first jobs in retail had they not been beat out by more experienced, laid-off workers.
“People often think the sign of a weaker labor market is lots of layoffs,” said Nick Bunker, economist at the job site Indeed. “But an underappreciated symptom of a weak labor market is employers pulling back on hiring.”
Retail’s demand for armies of low-skilled labor has long made it a key stop between schools or couches and full-time employment. It’s where many workers, especially young ones, learn soft skills and build résumés that will set them up for success with future employers across the economy, said Mark Mathews, National Retail Federation’s vice president of research and industry analysis.
“That’s the first rung on the job ladder,” Indeed’s Bunker said. “That’s really important because there are just some industries, occupations and companies who only hire people who are currently working and have a lot of job experience.”
During the apocalypse, retail’s role as a route into the workforce has come under threat.
When we looked at running totals of workers who had entered the workforce in the past year, we found that no occupation shrank more between the pre-apocalyptic (2012 to September 2015) and post-apocalyptic (2017 to present) periods than the retail salesperson. We chose that baseline because it’s the most recent comparable period from before retailers trimmed workers’ hours ahead of the apocalypse.
The next farthest-falling jobs for new entrants, janitors and child-care workers, dropped less than a third as far as retail. The fastest-growing first-time occupations over that time were, for the record, taxi and ride-hailing drivers, personal care aides, customer service representatives and software developers. None them offset more than about half of the loss incurred by retail.
Other Labor Department numbers, while not directly comparable, tell a similar story. Job openings in the broader retail sector fell 27 percent in the year ending in September — faster than any other industry over that time.
The retail apocalypse’s most numerous victims, then, are also the hardest to measure. We can’t just query a database for everyone who would have had their first job selling belts and undershirts at Forever 21 had it not gone under. We instead have to look for circumstantial evidence. There’s plenty.
The apocalypse has already disrupted the working patterns of those who rely on it most, particularly workers under age 25. Between the Great Recession and 2015, cashier and retail-salesperson positions were among the most common points of labor-force entry for young people across all races and genders, particularly Asians and black and Hispanic women. But since 2017, retail clerk positions have started dropping through the rankings for many groups.
We can guess that many will instead find their first job in food services, the one industry more precarious and lower-paying than retail. As of October, nonmanagerial food-service employees earned $14.65 an hour to retail’s $16.73.
According to Mathews, retail gives new workers a mix of customer-service and technical training they can’t get in other entry-level industries.
“We’re seeing so much technology in-store. It’s forcing employees to have a wider array of skills,” he said. “Retailers recognize their sales force is absolutely crucial to their survival in what is a highly, highly competitive industry,” he added later.
Folks older than age 25 don’t depend as much on salesperson or cashier jobs. Their paths are diverse, but certain patterns arise in the data: Black and Asian women often enter the workforce in nursing professions, Hispanic women as housekeepers and maids, and white women as schoolteachers. White and black men tend to enter as truck drivers, Asian men as software developers and Hispanic men as construction workers.
Which brings us to what Bunker says might be the silver lining of this apocalypse, at least for experienced workers: It happened while many other businesses — including many non-mall retail sectors — were still hiring.
“Lots of people lose their jobs in good economies; they just get hired again quickly,” Bunker said. “We really get into trouble when employers aren’t looking to hire.”