More retail jobs are going away

By JACK RYAN,

This is one of the biggest questions the transforming U.S. economy faces: How will the rise of e-commerce merchants like Amazon affect employment at brick-and-mortar retailers whose stores dot every town in America?

A story on the Yahoo Finance website confirms that a clear trend is in place, and the outlook is not good for brick and mortar.

Recent research indicates that the growth in e-commerce jobs, such as warehouse work to prepare online orders and delivery jobs to get the products to customers, is not fully replacing the number of jobs in the retail sector.

Wading through a few statistics, the research estimates that a 100 percent e-commerce retail economy would create 5.5 million fewer jobs than the 17.6 million currently working in retail.

We’re a long way from a 100 percent Amazon world. But anybody who’s ordered anything online from home at midnight can see the obvious customer convenience that e-commerce provides. The online share of retail sales was 2.3 percent in 2005, and it grew to 9.1 percent in 2017. The trend is clear and almost certainly unstoppable.

But here’s the problem as it relates to Small-town USA: If retail jobs are being replaced by fewer e-commerce jobs, where does that leave the small towns? Most of them will add a few delivery jobs, but not many towns will have any online warehouse work in their area.

Of course, the case can be made that small-town retailers were under attack long before Amazon. This goes back to the 1980s, when Wal-Mart became the dominant retailer in America. Its efficiencies forced plenty of regional and national chains out of business: Rose’s, TG&Y, Howard Bros., McCrory’s, Magic Mart and Otasco are a few from McComb’s retail history that come to mind.

Many small towns have had the good fortune to be the home of a determined group of locally owned retailers. They are still in business because they’ve worked hard to be different from Wal-Mart and other national chains. They have used their local roots as an asset instead of a liability.

But the continued growth of e-commerce will not make this task any easier. Perhaps the scariest part of the Yahoo Finance story is the prediction from the UBS investment firm that for each 1 percent increase in e-commerce retail sales, another 9,000 brick-and-mortar stores will close.

So far this year, Yahoo reported, retail has had more job cuts than any sector of the economy: 64,000 in the first four months alone of 2018.

This is a higher pace than in 2017.

Here are two thoughts to avoid getting swept away by the doom and gloom.

First, the national economy is growing and adding jobs. So something is percolating to replace anything that’s being lost in retail. Eventually some of it will filter down to small towns.

Also, as Yahoo reminded workers, the best retail employees are those who add value — meaning people who know their business and know how to do many things. That’s an excellent goal for just about any worker today.

 

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