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Trade war top threat to retail employment

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The retail industry is a major employer of Americans, with the National Retail Federation (NRF) estimating that the retail trade (including food services and drinking places) accounts for 28,984,100 jobs in the United States.

That compares to 19,855,000 jobs in health care and social assistance, and 12,596,500 jobs in manufacturing.

It is possible to imagine a future in which the typical store needs fewer employees. Retailers are experimenting with technologies that would automate functions — including everything from counting cash to monitoring store shelves — currently performed by human workers, in order to boost efficiency and cut costs.

Shorter term, though, the real threat to retail employment is likely to come from elsewhere — a shock to the economy, perhaps, or the fallout from a trade war.

Retail industry employment in June increased by 50,200 jobs unadjusted over the same time last year despite a seasonally adjusted drop from May of 25,800, according to the NRF. The numbers exclude automobile dealers, gasoline stations and restaurants. Overall, U.S. businesses added 213,000 jobs over May, the U.S. Labor Department reported.

Employment in June varied by retail channel. Clothing and clothing accessory stores added 6,900 jobs, and non-store employment, which includes online, was up 1,700 jobs. Job losses were concentrated in general merchandise stores, which were down 21,500; grocery and beverage stores, down 8,600; and electronics and appliances stores, down 3,700.

June’s drop in overall retail employment followed a revised monthly gain of 23,600 jobs in May, but NRF chief economist Jack Kleinhenz said the beginning of the volatile summer hiring season often brings large swings.

“This is another solid, robust payroll increase that nicely closes out the second quarter and affirms a very strong economy,” Kleinhenz said. “It is consistent with how consumers feel about the economy and their personal finances.

“Nonetheless, while payroll gains should translate into increased spending in the coming months, if the trade war spreads it may become a turning point for consumer and business confidence that could affect spending.”


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