By Louis Rosenthal | Axiometrics.com
Despite many bright spots in the latest employment survey from the BLS, one sector of the economy continues to deteriorate: retail employment. But not all retailers are feeling the same pinch, and the differential job growth (or losses) across retail categories paint a complicated picture of the strength of the single-family and apartment markets.
The recent demise of several well-known retailers, including Payless and The Limited — to say nothing of struggling brands like Lululemon and Urban Outfitters — might seem odd in the face of strong retail sales in general.
But while retail sales are growing, much of this gain is driven by online retailers, including Amazon, at the expense of more traditional retailers based in shopping centers or malls. Whereas all retail sales increased by 5.5% in March (compared to March 2016), non-store retail sales increased by 11.9% compared to the year prior.
With the change in consumer spending behaviors, bankruptcies and store closings are growing. Nearly 98 million square feet of retail space was vacated due to store closings in 2016, according to JLL — the highest level since 2008. Furthermore, nine retailers have announced bankruptcies thus far in 2017 — the same number as all of 2016.
Changes in the retail job market reflect the diverging fortunes of retail sales.
Retail jobs grew by only 0.5% on an annualized basis in April, compared to 1.3% in January and 1.6% in April 2016. But April’s job growth numbers look rosy compared to specific retail categories like electronics and appliance stores, department stores and general merchandise stores — each of which has been losing a significant number of jobs.
However, there is one particular retail category currently seeing excellent job growth: furniture and home furnishing stores.
While all retail establishments increased employment levels by only 0.5% in April (compared to April 2016), furniture and home furnishing stores have increased employment levels by 3.1%.
This tells us something interesting about the state of the economy and the housing market in particular. For one, it suggests a strong single-family housing market, which means people are spending more on home-related items. So, while retail sales and employment levels are growing at a relatively slow pace, this is not indicative of a broader slowdown in the economy — or a recession.
For the apartment market, a strengthening single-family market is good news, as it points to a stronger economy in general. But the incredible numbers of jobs lost in specific retail categories threaten to depress apartment demand — particularly class B and C apartments which cater to service-sector employees.
In short, the story of retail employment in 2017 is more complicated than it initially appears. Retail sales are still growing, but most of the growth is concentrated among non-traditional retailers, such as Amazon. As a result, traditional retailers are shedding jobs (or increasing them at a slower pace), just as non-traditional retailers are adding them at a robust pace. The differential job gains across retail categories (particularly for home furnishing retailers) points to a strong economy, which should boost the apartment market. But, at the same time, fewer jobs mean less demand for apartments.
For a case study of the impact of new technologies on employment, look no further than the retail market. The consequences for apartments should become evident in the not-so-distant future.
Louis Rosenthal researches and analyzes current apartment trends in the United States and correlates them with economic indicators. He also studies the urban landscape and other metrics to develop in-depth reports and presentations for clients. Louis recently earned his Master of Science in Public Policy, focusing on housing, landuse patterns, real-estate dynamics and economic development. He combines that knowledge with his four years of practical experience in tax analysis, regression analysis and presentations to develop insightful analysis. An accomplished writer, Louis’ work has appeared on Forbes.com and Axiometrics’ blogs, among others.