Retail hiring surged in February, but the gains essentially put employment in the sector back to where it was a year ago.
Jobs gains started to pick up in January after an unusual holiday hiring lull, with apparel and accessories specialty stores adding around 11,000 workers, according to adjusted numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, but the segment added another 14,900 positions during February, according to new department data.
Department stores, too, added 1,800 positions last month, after adding about 500 in January. And general merchandise and supercenter retailers hired 16,000 employees after adding only about 1,000 last month. Building and garden stores boosted payrolls by 10,300 workers.
Meanwhile, nonstore, or online, retail companies added 3,400 jobs in February after adding about 5,000 positions in January. But online retail has been the steadiest job gainer for some time, including over the last year, adding a total of 30,000 positions since February 2017.
Last year was a volatile time for traditional retailers as online shopping increased and many shoppers moved away from buying as much apparel. Many chains spent a good part of 2017 restructuring operations, a process that led to widespread layoffs and store closures.
So, although the new Labor Department data shows an overall gain in the retail sector of a little more than 46,000 jobs between January and February, the new jobs put employment in the industry at about where it was a year ago. In February 2017, the sector overall, including auto and electronics retailers, counted 15.89 million workers, and as of last month, the industry has about 15.92 million.
The bureau noted as well that while the final four months of the year traditionally see a boost in retail employment due to the holiday season, the job gains didn’t come this past year, leaving it to conclude that “employment in these industries has changed little on net.”
The National Retail Federation’s chief economist, Jack Kleinhenz, argued the “substantial gain” in retail jobs signals the “health and viability of the industry.”
“Beyond retail, labor markets continued to strengthen in all industries in February, and more jobs throughout the economy will mean more consumers shopping in retail stores,” Kleinhenz added.
Total nonfarm payroll did increase by 313,000 jobs in February, but the gain wasn’t enough to change the overall unemployment rate, which remains at 4.1 percent. Unemployment has been decreasing steadily since it peaked at around 10 percent in 2009, the height of the recession.
Kleinhenz also noted the supposed effect of tax reform, which includes massive rate cuts for corporations and relatively meager reductions for individuals that are set to expire in a few years, and “strong underlying economic fundamentals” as support for a “prosperous” 2018.
While the Dow Jones Industrial Average stock index is hovering around an all-time high and has been rising for the last two years, it’s recently shown some volatility of its own, falling about 10 percent at the start of February and it’s yet to fully recover.
Shoppers’ credit card debt is also at an all-time high of $1.01 trillion, beating out the previous record of $984 billion at the end of 2008 and the start of 2009, according to new data from the Federal Reserve.
Consumer confidence in February hit the highest level since 2000, buoyed by optimism in the job market and personal finances, and while average hourly wages have gained about 68 cents since February of last year, they’re far from catching up with inflation. Wages in the U.S., adjusted for inflation, were only 10 percent higher in 2017 than they were in 1973, according to U.S. Census data.
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