The unemployment rate in December held steady at 4.1% for the third straight month, with the number of unemployed workers resting at 6.6 million, according to the latest accounting from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, released on Friday.
Retail employment in stores overall declined by some 20,000 jobs, according to the report. Within the industry, employment in general merchandise stores declined by 27,000. Overall last year, retail lost some 67,000 jobs over 12 months, after growing by 203,000 in 2016.
According to a separate report from outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, the fallout from store closures and bankruptcies led to 76,084 job cuts in 2017, 28.2% more than the 59,324 job cuts in 2016.
The over-expansion of physical retail, along with the rise of e-commerce, is leading many retailers to shrink their employment rolls, at least in stores. "The retail pivot that caused thousands of store closures and job cuts was not seen in any other industry this year," Challenger, Gray & Christmas CEO John Challenger said in a statement emailed to Retail Dive.
The government’s number, which excludes automobile dealers, gasoline stations and restaurants, reverses the net boost of 20,500 jobs in November from October, probably due to a shift in seasonal hiring patterns, according to a report from the National Retail Federation emailed to Retail Dive.
"Retail numbers were lower than we expected but these are seasonally adjusted figures and can be revised as we saw last month," NRF Chief Economist Jack Kleinhenz said in a statement. "We have to be careful not to judge the health of the industry based on initial employment reports. We saw stronger retail spending during the holiday season and we will need to assess further once we see final holiday spending results from the Census Bureau next week."
Some of the correction is a function of how retail jobs are counted, Kleinhenz said. Because of e-commerce, many jobs in transportation, warehousing and fulfillment are retail jobs taking the place of brick-and-mortar operations.
The American employment picture is important to retailers not just because it's a bellwether of its own industry, but also of consumer confidence and shopping behavior. Employment has risen as the economy has improved and as baby boomers continue to retire. Last year, the U.S. economy added more than 2 million jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics report, but that's the lowest level of employment advances since 2010.
Despite the dearth of workers in many sectors, wages have yet to catch up. Over the year, average hourly earnings have risen by 65 cents, or 2.5%, according to Friday's report.