macy's store closed sign windo

The coronavirus shutdown hit retail payrolls hard. 

Retailers cut 2.1 million jobs last month and employment in the sector fell to 13.5 million, according to the Labor Department’s tally.

Roughly one-in-10 of the jobs that were lost in April came from retail.

Apparel and accessories specialty stores were forced to be especially aggressive and reduced payrolls by 739,600, cutting more than half of the workforce to 530,000. Department stores eliminated 160,800 positions to employ 920,800.

Retail was just part of the broader picture of economic despair. 

The U.S. shed 20.5 million jobs for the month as the unemployment rate skyrocketed to 14.7 percent, up from just 4.4 percent in the pre-COVID-19 world. 

That should be sobering if not downright terrifying to retailers trying to hold on through the shutdown given that the job market is generally seen as the single most important economic driver of consumer spending.

Washington has moved to support people who lost their jobs with expanded unemployment benefits, but the need has been staggering and outpaced the systems used to apply for aid in some states. Over 33.5 million people have put in for unemployment support over the past seven weeks — an unprecedented surge that has economists wringing their hands. 

Some of the retail jobs lost in the shutdown aren’t coming back. 

Even Nordstrom Inc., one of the strongest retailers, is closing 16 stores for good — eliminating 13 percent of its department store base. 

Many more closings are surely coming, with even steeper cuts a possibility for the companies that have sunk into bankruptcy, including J. Crew Group and Neiman Marcus Group

There are also an increasing number of companies feeling the strain of ultra low stock prices. J.C. Penney Co. Inc., which is expected to file for bankruptcy soon, ended Friday with its stock price at just 17 cents a share — leaving the struggling retailer with a market capitalization of just $54.6 million. Shares of Stein Mart Inc., RTW Retailwinds Inc., Stage Stores Inc., Destination XL Group Inc. and J.Jill Inc. all traded under 41 cents.

While the process of tentatively reopening the country has started — Kohl’s Corp., for one, plans to have a quarter of its better than 1,100 stores open next week — the retail world has changed.

When Kohl’s turns the lights back on in 10 states, including Texas and Georgia, on Monday — extending the retailer’s active brick-and-mortar footprint to 14 states — they will be using new protocols to maintain social distancing and guard against COVID-19.

The stores will be operating with reduced hours and fewer associates. And the associates who are in the store will have their temperatures checked before their shifts, and wear masks and gloves.

But the world is still holding its breath, balancing the desire to get out and about and start digging the economy out of a deep hole with the need to prevent a deadly surge of COVID-19 cases that could overwhelm the health system.

In the meantime, the supply chain is slowing down as consumers stay in doors, pressuring factories abroad.  

The National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates’ Global Port Tracker report on Friday predicted major U.S. retail container ports would see double-digit declines this spring and summer.

“Factories in China are largely back online and stores that closed here in the U.S. are starting to reopen, but volume is far lower than what we would see in a ‘normal’ year,” said Jonathan Gold, the NRF’s vice president for supply chain and customs policy. “Shoppers will come back and there is still a need for essential items, but the economic recovery will be gradual and retailers will adjust the amount of merchandise they import to meet demand.”

Activity at the ports in April was estimated to have fallen 13.4 percent from a year earlier with a 20.4 percent drop seen in May and a 18.6 percent decline in June.

Read more from WWD:

Envisioning the Retail of the Post-Coronavirus Era

Personal Luxury Goods Expected to Contract 20% to 35% in 2020

CEO Van Raemdonck on Neiman’s Bankruptcy and What Lies Ahead

WATCH: How Fashion Is Fighting the Coronavirus