<img height="1" width="1" style="display:none" src="https://www.facebook.com/tr?id=192888919167017&amp;ev=PageView&amp;noscript=1">
Thursday, December 7, 2023
Dec. 7, 2023

Linkedin Pinterest

Rampell: Retail industry also struggles


An iconic American industry is struggling.

This sector has long been battered by forces beyond its control: globalization, automation, “disruptive” new competitors, changing tastes. Bankruptcies mount, and workplaces shutter around the country. Big, empty buildings, once bustling with young people, have been left to rot.

To add insult to injury, the industry is poised to get slaughtered by President Donald Trump’s escalating trade wars. But notwithstanding the U.S. trade representative’s public hearings on the subject that began Monday, hardly anyone seems to care.

The industry I’m referring to? Why, retail, of course.

Retail is larger than any of the sectors Trump usually dotes on, the ones he bestows with bailouts and subsidies and affectionate tweets. “Retail salesperson” is the single biggest occupation in the country. Total industry employment eclipses that of manufacturing by some 3 million jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In fact, more people work in department stores alone than in the entire coal mining industry — by a factor of 20.

Lately, retail has been suffering. From January through mid-June, U.S. companies announced plans to close some 7,000 brick-and-mortar stores, more closures than in all of 2018, according to Coresight Research. This despite the fact that the economy has posted strong growth and consumers have more money in their pockets thanks to tax cuts.

Many dark or soon-to-darken storefronts are household names, such as Payless ShoeSource, Gap, J.C. Penney, Family Dollar. They have struggled to compete as customers spend more of their money online (and elsewhere, such as restaurants).

Malls were also vastly overbuilt, growing more than twice as fast as the U.S. population from 1970 to 2015. So even without Amazon and other e-commerce, a correction was probably coming eventually, if not necessarily the retail-pocalypse we see today.

There are lots of parallels with Trump’s pet industries. Retail, for instance, is dominated by demographics at the heart of Trump’s political base: financially insecure non-college-educated whites displaced by technological change.

Yet, for some reason, the decline of retail — and the 160,000 industry jobs eliminated since January 2017 — hasn’t inspired nearly the same level of sympathy as have similar challenges in other industries.

Perhaps that’s because retail isn’t as geographically concentrated as manufacturing. Bombed-out malls dot the country, punching holes in employment numbers. But there’s no Rust Belt-like locus for candidates to pander to.

Whatever the cause, that lack of sympathy is going to be a problem. Because just as these companies are enduring painful structural change, Trump is threatening to jack up their costs.

When Trump began his tariff hikes in early 2018, he mostly spared consumer goods, with some notable exceptions. His tariffs on steel, aluminum and $250 billion of Chinese imports primarily targeted inputs. Then last month, he announced plans to levy new duties of 25 percent on the remaining $300 billion or so of Chinese products. What’s left is largely consumer goods: cellphones, clothing, toys, shoes and so on.

Retail companies are freaking out. They source much of their inventory from China and can’t reroute their supply chains easily, cheaply or quickly.

This echoes what big retailers had already been warning investors and customers: Sweeping tariffs will stress already-thin profit margins and lead to layoffs. They will also raise prices for U.S. households by hundreds or thousands of dollars, wiping out the value of Trump’s tax cuts.

Trump’s trade wars have caused plenty of pain for U.S. companies already, but he’s cushioned the blow to some through taxpayer-funded bailouts. No such rescue seems in the offing for retail.

Even if Trump were inclined to execute such a bailout, designing it would present a challenge. How, after all, would you bail out nearly every taxpayer in the country?

Support local journalism

Your tax-deductible donation to The Columbian’s Community Funded Journalism program will contribute to better local reporting on key issues, including homelessness, housing, transportation and the environment. Reporters will focus on narrative, investigative and data-driven storytelling.

Local journalism needs your help. It’s an essential part of a healthy community and a healthy democracy.

Community Funded Journalism logo