Retail industry employment in March from February declined by 11,700 jobs, according to the U.S. Department of Labor's monthly report last week. The industry lost 47,400 jobs unadjusted year-over-year, the National Retail Federation noted in a press release.
The trend in retail comes amid continued low unemployment. The number of jobs increased by 196,000 in March, leaving unemployment rate unchanged at 3.8% percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But job cuts in the first quarter amounted to 190,410, 10.3% higher than the quarter before and 35.6% higher than the same quarter last year, according to a report from outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas emailed to Retail Dive. Retailers are leading all sectors in job cuts this year, with 4,860 alone announced in March, down 18.5% year over year, Challenger said.
The overall unemployment rate is one of the most important statistics to retailers because of its significance to the state of the economy and consumer confidence.
Earnings growth appears to be slowing. In March, average hourly wages on private nonfarm payrolls rose by 4 cents to $27.70, following a 10-cent gain in February. Over the past 12 months, average hourly earnings have increased by 3.2%. The average hourly earnings of private-sector production and nonsupervisory employees increased by 6 cents to $23.24 in March, the government said.
"Average hourly earnings growth was a dud in March, rising just 0.1% (0.14% before rounding)," noted Wells Fargo Senior Economist Sarah House in comments emailed to Retail Dive.
Retailers are doing their part in keeping wages afloat. Target and Costco in recent weeks were the latest to announce bumps in their starting hourly pay, with Costco last month increasing its wage to $15 after hiking it only last year. But employment in retail itself continues to be bumpy.
"While Retail is by far responsible for the highest number of cuts recently, the sector is also constantly hiring. In fact, The Home Depot announced it would hire 80,000 workers for the spring and summer months," Andrew Challenger, Vice President of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, said in a statement.
The NRF called the March numbers "good news after the seesaw employment growth in the past few months."
"It paints a picture of resiliency of the U.S. economy. And all eyes should focus on the wage growth we've been seeing since higher wages translate into increased spending," NRF Chief Economist Jack Kleinhenz said in a statement. "Retail jobs reflect the pulse of the economy, and as the economy picks up retail hiring is likely to do the same."
But not all observers are so sanguine. Challenger said that other indicators, including the numbers of companies filing for bankruptcy or closing operations, "suggest we're heading for a downturn." Several retailers have filed or seem on the brink of filing bankruptcies this year and the number of store closures already in 2019 is close to surpassing 2018's total. Challenger also warned that recent rhetoric around closing the U.S.-Mexico border "adds to the uncertainty."