Last week, the discount shoe retailer Payless ShoeSource filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and announced it will close 400 brick-and-mortar stores throughout the United States and Puerto Rico. The announcement comes on the heels of a seemingly unending parade of bad news from traditional retailers in recent months. So far this year, Macy’s, J.C. Penney, and BCBG, among others, have all announced significant store closures.
Analysts who study the retail sector are pretty much unanimous in their assessment of what’s ailing traditional retailers: There are just too many big-box stores and hulking suburban malls in the U.S., especially given the growing dominance of online retailers like Amazon. Here’s what Richard Hayne, the CEO of Urban Outfitters, told analysts on a conference call last month:
Retail square feet per capita in the United States is more than six times that of Europe or Japan. And this doesn’t count digital commerce. Our industry, not unlike the housing industry, saw too much square footage capacity added in the 1990s and early 2000s. Thousands of new doors opened and rents soared. This created a bubble, and, like housing, that bubble has now burst. We are seeing the results: doors shuttering and rents retreating. This trend will continue for the foreseeable future and may even accelerate.
Not surprisingly, these store closures have been accompanied by another kind of economic pain: layoffs. Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a job placement firm, calculates that traditional retailers have announced over 200,000 layoffs over the last four years — and 38,000 already in 2017. In fact, according to the March jobs report, which was released last Friday, the number of retail jobs in the U.S. declined by 30,000 last month (after a similar decline in February).
And while Amazon announced earlier this year that it would hire 100,000 new employees in 2017 and the first half of 2018, is the growth in e-commerce enough to make up for the destruction of traditional retail jobs?
Some argue it’s not. “The number of jobs we are losing in retail outpaces the number being created in the sectors that are taking their place,” Andrew Challenger, the vice president of a job placement firm, told the New York Times back in January.
More Than a Bubble
But the data tells a more nuanced story. Employment in the entire retail industry (including both traditional and online retailers) is now well above…