It is hard to imagine President Donald Trump standing outside an Ann Taylor Loft or a Gymboree, promising to save the jobs of the hard-working Americans inside.
Yet for all the talk of bringing back the jobs of coal miners and factory workers, the most threatened workers in America are those laboring in the retail trenches.
Every day, it seems, another retailer has started another round of layoffs — as Sears did on Tuesday, and the parent company of Saks Fifth Avenue and Lord & Taylor on the previous Thursday. Or announced a cost-slashing, store-shuttering plan, as the owner of Ann Taylor and her corporate cousins, including Loft and Lane Bryant, did that same day. Or filed for bankruptcy, as the children's apparel company Gymboree did on June 11, saying it would close as many as a third of its stores.
That so many workers from sales clerks at the mall to to executives at headquarters will be unemployed in the coming months has drawn little notice from a president who is so about jobs, he generally tweets about them in triplicate. And with exclamation points!
That string of bad news was just another week in the faltering retail industry. General merchandise stores have shed an average 13,000 jobs a month each of the past six months, according to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report issued earlier this month. By contrast, the report found that the much bemoaned mining and manufacturing sectors generally added jobs during that period.
In Maryland, about 294,200 people currently work in retail, down by about 2,400 since January, according to the state's Commerce Department.
But retail workers get little love, even at a time when their industry is in full-blown crisis. If coal miners and factory workers are viewed as working class heroes who built America by the sweat of their brows, retail clerks barely have an image of any sort — unless you remember the early-'90s Gapclerks on Saturday Night Live, played by Adam Sandler, David Spade and Chris Farley as bratty Valley Girls.
You can, and many have, speculate on why some jobs are more equal than others, or at least more worthy of concern when they begin to vanish: that retail workers are more likely to be women and minorities, for example, than their counterparts in mining and manufacturing; or that there's no comparable boogeyman — immigrants or trade — to blame for alleged job theft.
Instead, brick-and-mortar stores have lost customers and thus jobs in virtual droves to e-commerce, led by Amazon and its ability to place consumers one click away from an impossibly vast array of products. That, along with other changes in the way people shop (price matching and trendy knock-offs over label-loyalty and quality) and choose to spend money (on buying experiences over material goods), have upended some of the nation's most stalwart retailers. The prospect of companies like Sears and Macy's that survived the Depression buckling under free-shipping-with-Prime is simply staggering.
But there are similarities between what's happening in retail on the one hand and mining and manufacturing on the other. Both are faced with certain hard facts, such as the inescapable role that automation has and will continue to play in the number of jobs that will be available to us mere humans. Studies have estimated anywhere from a third to half of retail jobs could be lost to automation in the future.
Now that we're used to self-checkout at the grocery store, it's not that big of a leap to even newer technologies: Picking out items in a store and just walking out with them — as a system of sensors recognize you through a mobile app, bills your payment method on file and allows you to bypass either human cashiers or self-checkout machines.
There's already one such store, created by Amazon — who else — in Seattle. Amazon Go, currently open only to employees, has groceries and prepared meals in a sensor-filled space that tracks which items you've taken away and charges your account accordingly. A little creepy in a big-brother, company-store kind of way, but consumers have proven amenable to exchanges of privacy and credit card information for easy-in, easy-out convenience.
Even as it helps put traditional stores out of business, Amazon is joining them in the physical world — it has opened several bookstores and, on Friday, announced it is buying the Whole Foods chain.
Meanwhile, retailers are experimenting with ways of bringing what works online into physical stores — Bloomingdale's, for example, has tried equipping some of its fitting rooms with tablets that show you if what you just tried on is available in other sizes or colors, and suggests accessories to match. It will even allow you to summon ... a human sales assistant.
No one knows if this or something else will "save" retail. Likely it will be a number of different and perhaps heretofore unimaginable schemes. But the fact is, people are always going to need stuff, and the way they've shopped and bought that stuff has always changed over time.
Engaging in false nostalgia for retail jobs that were low-paying and often viewed as temporary anyway makes no more sense that longing for work that is as dangerous and unsustainable as extracting fossil fuels from deep below the earth. Let the machines do as much of both those jobs as they can, and free — and train — the clerks and miners to work somewhere else.