employment

If Santa doesn’t come this year, don’t blame the bosses. 

The U.S. added a seasonally adjusted 266,000 jobs last month as the unemployment rate ticked down to 3.5 percent — matching the 50-year low for joblessness, according to the Labor Department. Average weekly earnings ticked up 0.2 percent to $973.18. 

That, however, doesn’t mean it’s the traditional brick-and-mortar retailers that are the big beneficiaries. 

While department stores added 12,000 workers to employ 1.1 million, apparel and accessories specialty stores shed 17,800 jobs to employ 1.3 million. The seasonal adjustments to the figures are supposed to factor out changes related to major holidays — like Christmas — so the figures suggest underlying weakness at specialty stores. 

A longer-term look bears that out, although it doesn’t build the case for any particular strength at department stores. Over the past year, specialty stores cut 71,400 positions while department store eliminated 23,400 jobs. 

Nonetheless, investors were buoyed by the continued sign of economic strength and sent the Dow Jones Industrial Average up 1.1 percent to 27,984.57. Among the biggest gainers were a trio of companies that had quarterly earnings updates Thursday: Zumiez Inc. rose 13.9 percent to $34.82, while Ulta Beauty Inc. increased 11.8 percent to $263.95 and Signet Jewelers advanced 7 percent to $19.14.

The strong employment picture is one factor expected to fuel holiday sales gains, which forecasters on average see rising a strong 4.4 percent. And the read from sales around Black Friday and Cyber Monday generally supported the rosy outlook. 

But the question is just who is going to pick up those sales. 

With mall-based specialty stores and department stores struggling to engage the consumer and draw traffic, more people are logging online to order their Christmas gifts. 

Consultancy Customer Growth Partners said while sales over the long Black Friday weekend shot up 5.4 percent, that was driven by 14 percent growth online. E-commerce accounted for 58 percent of the increase during the crucial shopping period.

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