How apocalyptic is the retail apocalypse? A rash of store closings and the second straight month of steep retail job losses may have left the impression that America’s shopping centers are about to collapse in anticipation of the seventh seal. There’s certainly cause for concern over the geographic impacts of these closings, not to mention the political nonresponse to them at a time when the president is still crowing over the barely significant coal industry. As big-box chains and department stores close outposts, the sector is clearly shrinking its footprint and potentially removing a big source of demand for labor. More than 15.8 million Americans—about 13 percent of those with private-sector jobs—work in retail.
But in the larger scheme, the retail apocalypse may be more of a medium-high tidal wave. My colleague Jordan Weissmann tweeted out a chart showing long-term growth in retail employment, which looks pretty good. And from the economic nadir of November 2009, even as e-commerce has hoovered up market share and many chains have shrunk, total retail jobs have risen by 1.49 million, or 10.3 percent. In the same time period, all payroll jobs have grown by about 12 percent.
Am I the only one who thinks these retail apocalypse stories are kind of overblown? pic.twitter.com/1e0ETTgV4W
— Jordan Weissmann (@JHWeissmann) April 17, 2017
Overall, then, retail employment looks pretty nonapocalyptic. As some chains loudly go out of business, liquidate, or close stores, smaller chains expand to pick up the slack. Moreover, retail is a big and highly varied sector. It consists of some segments that are essentially immune to e-commerce and shifts in consumption patterns, and others for whom the same shifts will spell doom.
So which categories of retail are about to be trampled by the four horsemen, and which are still enjoying a pleasant economic ride?
The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ data highlight several different sectors within retail whose fortunes vary when it comes to employment. Take the auto retailing sector, which is the largest single retail sector by dollar value and accounts for about 13 percent of total retail employment. Americans overwhelmingly prefer to buy new and used cars from brick-and-mortar car dealers. Employment in this segment was up nearly 2 percent in March 2017 from March 2016.
Gas stations may ultimately be disintermediated by home-charging stations, if electric cars ever catch on. But neither Amazon nor any other online retailer will be able to siphon off sales from this sector in…