The retail sector, a huge – if often under-noticed – piece of the economy, continues to struggle. With just a few exceptions, the big chains that had taken the high ground, dominating malls and big boxes across the American landscape, are now in full retreat.
Some national chains -- Circuit City, Borders, Sports Authority, CompUSA -- went out of business.
Chains like Kohl’s and Target struggle to find their place, while others have fended off disaster by shrinking or restructuring: JC Penney, for example, has announced store closings. Even retail icons like Sears and Macy’s have warned of potential doom if they cannot regain traction.
The successes are fewer, but notable: Atlanta-based Home Depot is one, along with its chief competitor, Lowes, as well as Costco and Walmart.
Some of the damage is surely digital: nearly $103 billion spent in online purchases during the final three months of last year. And some of the shift is a matter of structure: there were just too many stores built and opened during the boom years.
Some economists call this kind of upheaval “creative destruction.” Creative it may be, but destructive, it surely is.
In the past five years, while the U.S. economy steadily expanded, department stores lost 16.1 percent of their jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Metro Atlanta data is not as up to date, but it was following the same downward trajectory through 2015, the most recent date for data. And if it has tracked the national pattern since then, there are now about 23,444 department store jobs in the region.
That would be a loss of 5,619 jobs in six years – a 17.3 percent drop – while the number of overall jobs was surging.
The nation has more than 446,640 employees of department stores, according to the BLS. And the sector has hemorrhaged 259,000 jobs since 2011. That is more than three times as many employees as in America’s coal industry – but as big as retail’s loss, there’s not a lot of political rhetoric spent on those disappearing jobs.
But then, there are some big differences between coal and retail.
For one thing, retail jobs typically don’t pay that well. Retail sales pays an average of about $22,040 a year, according to the BLS. Mining jobs – whatever the dangers, health risks or stresses – are generally seen as a bridge to home ownership and a middle class lifestyle. the sector pays an average of $59,380 a year, according to the BLS.
And, while retail jobs are everywhere, coal is concentrated in ways that give it more importance to a community – both economically and symbolically.
Finally it should be added that there are gender and racial contrasts.
Coal mining is generally done by men – usually white men, often the chief breadwinner in a family. Department store jobs are frequently done by women and in many places they are women of color or immigrants.
Jobs in department stores
...in the United States
... in metro Atlanta
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics , staff research