Retailers still face another big challenge to manage in the jobs market — but the picture at least grew a little bit brighter last month.
Apart from the safety concerns of the coronavirus and the vexing issue of institutional racism — brought to the fore by the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police — stores are trying to beckon consumers back with unemployment still at levels not seen in generations.
But there was some reason for hope in the Labor Department’s report on May employment, issued Friday morning. The unemployment rate improved to 13.3 percent last month, down from 14.7 percent in April, but way up on the 4.4 percent in March, when COVID-19 sent much of the nation home in the interest of social distancing.
Last month, retailers added back 368,000 jobs after cutting headcount by 2.3 million in April.
Apparel and accessories specialty stores added back 94,800 workers, boosting the sector’s workforce to 594,900, but still well below the 1.3 million seen a year earlier. Department stores added back 47,100 positions to employ 849,100, down from the 1.1 million a year earlier.
Across the U.S. economy, 2.5 million jobs were added back, promising — but still a small portion of the 20.5 million positions that were cut in April.
Although some jobs are starting to come back as more businesses tentatively open their doors, many companies are also cutting back for good. The bankrupt J.C. Penney Co. Inc. said it planned to start store closing sales at 154 locations this month. Neiman Marcus Group, J. Crew Group, Stage Stores Inc. and Centric Brands are all also winding their way through the Chapter 11 process, which New York & Co. parent RTW Retailwinds Inc. acknowledged this week could be its path forward as well.
Employment is seen as the single biggest factor underlying consumer spending, so a return to Great Depression unemployment levels, even for a short while, could have a devastating effect on fashion. Already, sentiment is at a low. The Conference Board said last month that its Consumer Confidence Index stood at 86.6 — a reading that was more or less on par with April, but well below the 130.7 seen in February.
Already the industry is in turmoil — orders have been cut, supply chains are working at reduced capacity, many stores are open just with curbside pickup, fashion shows are a big question mark and more.
And the economic fallout is seen as lingering as the world sorts out its priorities anew.
This week, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office cut its 10-year economic projection, declaring that the nation’s economic output would be $15.7 trillion less over this decade than it forecast just before the COVID-19 crisis hit in earnest.