The specialty store crowd continued to hire more workers in a tight labor market last month — department stores, not so much.
But payrolls are just a part of what’s keeping retailers up at night, as if they needed more worries in a world that’s both more digital and demanding a better in-store experience. There were also fresh indications that the trade war with China that President Trump started was not cooling down, but heating up.
Trump has already added 10 percent tariffs on $50 billion in Chinese imports, most of which have been implemented already.
There are higher duties coming on another $200 billion in goods and this week Trump asked his trade representative to consider 25 percent levies on that trade, instead of just 10 percent.
In response, China said on Friday that it would move to higher tariffs, at varying rates, on $60 billion in U.S. imports.
Trump took a similarly provocative approach to trade with Europe before reversing course and picking back up trade talks, but there have been no signs the tide has turned on China.
While industry executives watch and strategize how much and when to raise prices for consumers to help manage their costs, they are also trying to figure out how to keep their store humming.
Apparel and accessories specialty retailers expanded July payrolls by a seasonally adjusted 10,000 workers compared with June to employee 1.4 million. Department stores limped in with 100 jobs added to employ 1.2 million last month.
Retailers have been struggling to line up workers. Some, including Kohl’s Corp., are starting the search for holiday help earlier than ever. The industry has also been steadily raising wages for entry-level employees to both attract workers in a strong job market and provide better customer service, an important differentiator in the digital age.
That dynamic isn’t expected to change in the near term.
The U.S. added 157,000 jobs for the month as the unemployment rate fell to 3.9 percent from 4 percent. The job gains marked the weakest growth since March fell short of the consensus estimate of economists, which figured on 192,500 new jobs during the month.
Retailers are competing for workers with a host of other industries hiring. Among the biggest job gains last month were seen in leisure and hospitality, which added 40,000 jobs; manufacturing (37,000); health care and social assistance (33,500), and temporary help services (27,900).
The economy, growing at 4 percent clip and helped along by Trump’s huge tax cuts, has been strong, fueling a strong bout of consumer spending. But those tax cuts could lead to deficits down the line and critics — and some supporters — of Trump worry that his confrontational approach to trade could hurt growth.