November 26, 2021 by Layla O'Kane, Summer Jasinski, Clare Coffey
According to one theory, the traditionally frenzied kickoff to the holiday shopping season gets its name from the association of solvency with being “in the black.” Customers would buy so much merchandise at the yearly Thanksgiving Friday sales that companies could close out the year in the black on the strength of a single day.
Whatever the origins of the term, Black Friday is an important economic event that sets the tone for the entire holiday shopping season. This year, it’s especially noteworthy, as Black Friday sales numbers indicate the strength and shape of the ongoing pandemic recovery in the retail sector.
In this post, we’ll provide some context for those numbers by examining retail industry trends as they appear in our proprietary postings data .
The COVID-19 pandemic that broke out in 2020 upended plans, business models, and trends in the economy. With restaurants shuttered, office parks empty, and large sections of the workforce on furlough, it was impossible to tell what the new normal would be like.
There’s good news on that front from the job postings data.
Current posting trends for the retail sector look similar to those of 2019. In fact, companies are currently posting even more than they were this time two years ago.
And when we look at the market share of retail postings month by month, it seems that from an employer perspective, the holiday season is starting slightly earlier than it used to. In the chart below, we can see a bump in late summer, when postings begin to climb in anticipation of the upcoming holiday shopping season. In 2019, the bump shows up in late August. But in 2021, it appears earlier in the month.
The difference could be due to fears of labor shortages, or due to anticipated high demand after the isolation, postponement of festivities, and uncertainty that characterized last year’s holiday season for many. In either case, one point is clear: employers are attempting to hire at levels that match or exceed the pre-pandemic status quo.
If there’s a familiar economic narrative, it’s that brick-and-mortar retail is on its last legs. And it’s certainly true that traditional retail has faced serious challenges in recent years. Even before the pandemic accelerated a switch to a delivery-centric lifestyle for many, once dominant chains like Macy’s and Sears were shuttering locations as e-commerce giants like Amazon gained more market share. But it would be remiss to conclude that physical stores are a thing of the past.
When we separate out traditional retail from e-commerce, we can see that e-commerce is indeed growing rapidly, particularly around March 2020 (a spike that makes sense given the pandemic-driven lifestyle changes discussed above.) But at no point does its market share exceed or even match that of traditional retail. E-commerce is handily outstripping its own performance in 2019–not brick and mortar retail in 2021.
It’s worth noting too, that among the top employers increasing their posting behavior (Amazon, Michaels Arts and Crafts, Family Dollar, Apple Inc. and Ace Hardware) only one is e-commerce only. So if you love the experience of picking out holiday gifts in person, don’t worry: a digital-physical hybrid model of commerce is likely to be with us for some time to come.
It’s not all good news for retail, whether e-commerce or traditional. Several major employers have decreased their retail offerings compared to 2019, including household names like Sears, Dollar General, Best Buy, American Eagle Outfitters, and Macy’s.
And evidence of labor shortages persist in job postings. Purchasing Agents saw a 158% increase in posts offering on-the-job training, while Logisticians saw 138% growth and E-commerce Analysts 116% growth. Meanwhile, requests for bachelor’s degrees declined by 53% for Inventory Associates, 35% for Production Workers, and Inventory Specialists by 28%.
To be clear, dropping barriers to entry for these roles is not a bad thing in itself. It just indicates that labor shortages are being felt enough for companies to change their posting behavior–another possible chokepoint for a holiday shopping season already bedeviled by supply chain issues.
If the trends above offer any indication, it’s going to be a holiday season marked by high demand–not only for consumer goods, but for the workers who purchase, package, and sell them.