The job market brightened last month, but the picture for fashion retailers is still decidedly mixed.
Apparel and accessories specialty stores shed a seasonally adjusted 20,000 jobs in February, versus January, to employ 976,200. Department stores fared better, expanding payrolls by 3,800 to employ 977,400.
Retailers overall added 41,000 jobs for the month, but the industry is still digging itself out of deep hole following last year’s COVID-19 shutdowns. The retail sectors hiring most aggressively were general merchandise stores, with 14,000 new jobs, and health and personal care stores, with 12,000 additional positions.
Retail cut a combined 2.4 million jobs in March and April last year and since then have added back just 2 million.
That 400,000-job deficit in in-store positions shows just how much the industry has changed over the past year and is still changing with jobs getting funneled to e-commerce fulfillment and many stores simply closed.
Overall, the U.S. added 379,000 new jobs in February, better than the 175,000 economists projected, and the unemployment rate ticked down to 6.2 percent from 6.3 percent.
The recovery had entered a new and nerve-wracking stage.
Vaccines are getting to many of the most-vulnerable, including at least some front-line retail workers. But the progress in COVID-19 case counts is seen as stalling after a steep drop and new variants and looser restrictions — Texas, for instance, is letting businesses operate at full capacity and dropped its mask mandate — are giving medical experts pause.
Retailers are hedging their bets, but also seeing light at the end of the tunnel.
Katrina O’Connell, executive vice president and chief financial officer of Gap Inc., told analysts: “While the biggest impact from the pandemic is likely largely behind us, we expect the lingering impacts as seen in the fourth quarter of international market closures and stay-at-home restrictions including in Canada, China, Japan and Europe as well as U.S. COVID-19 case counts to persist, particularly in the first half of 2021. However, as vaccines roll out and stimulus checks begin, we currently view the second half of 2021 favorably, reflecting a likely return to a more normalized pre-pandemic level.”
Gap is looking for sales to grow by a percentage in the mid- to high teens this year.
More from WWD: