Seasonal retail employment gains hit their highest total on record in December, as retailers added 229,700 jobs during the month.
The total is 189% higher than the 79,500 jobs retailers added in December 2019, according to an analysis of preliminary non-seasonally adjusted data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) by global outplacement and business and executive coaching firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.
“The late-season hiring surge came primarily from club stores and supercenters, retailers that also typically sell groceries and other household items,” said Andrew Challenger, senior VP of Challenger, Gray & Christmas. “These are the retail jobs that have been in demand throughout the pandemic.”
For the total 2020 holiday season, retailers added 788,600 jobs, a 17% increase from the adjusted 672,300 jobs added in October through December 2019 (adjusted down from the 702,000 jobs added during that season). It is the highest number of jobs added during the holiday season recorded by the BLS.
Despite the gains, however, total employment for the sector is down by 429,200 jobs from December 2019. As of December, 15,730,500 workers were employed in retail, down 2.7% from the 16,159,700 employed workers in retail in the same month last year.
“Overall, retail employment is still below 2019 levels, as the industry took a staggering hit at the onset of the pandemic,” said Challenger. “The subsectors that were able to successfully engage with customers online and set up delivery or safe pick-up options were able to make employment gains. Unfortunately for many small or midsize retailers, those tended to be the large, big-box stores.”
According to the BLS, general merchandise stores, including warehouse clubs and supercenters, added 172,200 jobs during the holiday season, up from 111,800 jobs added at the end of 2019. Total employment in that sector is up 184,900 jobs, or 9%, over 2019.
Meanwhile, department stores added 155,900 jobs for the holidays, down 16.9% from the 187,700 jobs added in the same period last year. Total employment in this sector is down 5.3% from 2019.
The other retail sector with large job gains was clothing and accessories stores, which added 143,400 jobs, down from 164,400 added during the same period in 2019. Employment at these stores was down 24.2% over last year.
The retail sectors with total employment higher than 2019 occurred in building materials and garden supply stores (up 7.9% over 2019), food and beverage stores (up 2.5% over 2019), and nonstore retailers (up 3.6% over 2019).
“The retailers that were able to add jobs in 2020 were the ones with a delivery mechanism in place and an online infrastructure,” said Challenger. “This is reflected in the number of seasonal warehousing and transportation jobs added for the holidays.”
Seasonal jobs added in warehousing and transportation increased 103% over the same period last year, as companies in this sector added 597,400 jobs during the holidays, according to the preliminary non-seasonally adjusted data from the BLS. This sector added 295,000 jobs during the previous holiday season. Despite the gains, total employment in the sector is relatively flat: 5,926,300 in 2020, up 1,000 jobs over 2019.
“These changes were occurring in retail well before the pandemic hit, as thousands of brick-and-mortar stores closed,” Challenger said. “The pandemic exacerbated this pivot,” he added. “The good news is that many retailers were able to create jobs for some of the millions of Americans who were out of work. The bad news is that they may not last. It will be interesting to see how many jobs retailers retain in January and February.”
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