Old Navy

Retailers continued to add back jobs last month, adjusting to life with the coronavirus, but still face plenty of second-half uncertainty as consumers watch how the pandemic progresses and adjust accordingly. 

According to the Labor Department’s latest reading, retailers overall added 142,4000 jobs in September, compared with August. That included an additional 39,800 jobs at apparel and accessories specialty stores, which employed a total of 964,200, and a 9,900 gain at department stores, which employ 1 million. 

The job market continued to bounce back across the economy, adding 661,000 positions overall and pushing the unemployment rate down again, to 7.9 percent from 8.4 percent in August.

That made for a mixed reading job market compared with projections, with the survey on unemployment proving to be stronger than the one that tracks job gains. Economists were looking for the economy to add more jobs, almost 858,000, while the unemployment rate was seen falling to 8.2 percent. But the unemployment rate in September failed to account for the wave of job cuts that took place this week across numerous industries, from airlines to entertainment to finance. Disney alone cut 28,000 jobs.

And, as with everything, the coronavirus lingers near to the surface and consumers and retailers alike are girding themselves for the possibility of a second wave. The pandemic will no doubt remain front and center as President Donald Trump revealed that he and First Lady Melania Trump tested positive for the virus overnight, scrambling an already chaotic election season and spooking investors, who sent Dow Jones Industrial Average futures down 400 points, or 1.4 percent, to 27,289 on Friday morning. 

Brands are doing their best to navigate the fractured world by following consumers online.

Stefan Larsson, who is set to become chief executive officer of PVH Corp. in February, told WWD this week, “The e-commerce opportunity is real and it’s big and while we pivoted to follow the consumer through the pandemic, we have just started to scratch the surface for the e-commerce potential of the company.”

Many other retailers are following the same thread and are staffing up to build the digital business — job gains that don’t show up in the retail figures — even as in-store shopping struggles. 

Gap Inc. this week outlined plans to bring in seasonal associates to help support its fulfillment as well as what it describes as “customer contact centers.” 

“These new roles follow the company’s hiring of more than 50,000 employees in the first half of the year to meet the changing needs of its customers,” Gap said. “To make this year’s hiring process safe and easy, the company will be hiring virtually, allowing applicants to apply online for any role in three minutes or less.” 

Gap said it acquired 3.5 million new customers through its online channels in the second quarter and is looking to people to pack goods, assemble merchandise, prepare orders for shipment, serve customers through its customer contact centers and through contactless services.

Even as retailers add more jobs to gear up for what is likely to be an online-driven holiday season, the pandemic remains a major concern for their employees. Amazon revealed Thursday that 19,000 of its workers had tested positive for the coronavirus during the crisis – a number it said was below what it expected but still an amber light for companies and their staffs.

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