Sarah Cook uses voice commands to communicate with a Google Glass wearable computer headset during a demonstration at Puritan Mill in 2014, in Atlanta. Similar technology could radically revamp retail. David Tulis / AJC Special
Photo: David Tulis
Photo: David Tulis

Atlanta retail jobs under attack (but will the killer be the savior, too?)

The chaos in retail has meant thousands of store closings, but an expected hemorrhaging of jobs has not come to pass – yet.

Experts say it is coming: a dramatic shift in consumer habits and the burgeoning growth of online retailers – along with overly enthusiastic expansions of manty brick-and-mortar stores – will likely mean the sector will be roiled by radical change over the next few years.

Those changes have spurred the announcement of 6,800 store closings in this year alone, according to Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc., a global outplacement and executive coaching firm that tracks labor force trends.

About 1,000 of those shuttered outlets were Radio Shacks, which filed for bankruptcy. The chain had at least 17 stores in metro Atlanta. Others had less of a presence, like HH Gregg which had three stores in the area. And some companies, some iconic names like Macy’s and Lowe’s, did not close, but are trimming jobs to cut costs in an effort to prosper.

It’s hard to pin down exactly how many jobs have been shed so far – and in fact, it may be that the sector’s employment has not fallen. 

So far.

GEORGIA JOBS AT RISK FROM AUTOMATION 

But clearly, the economic stakes are substantial. Nearly 180,000 people in Georgia work in retail, part of a national sector of roughly 15.9 million people, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

Most of those people work in the bricks-and-mortar world, not in Internet sales. But that economic eco-system is under increasing assault, as more and more sales are done online. Amazon is the most visible and heftiest of the online retailers, but there are aggressive online efforts by other retailers, including the likes of Walmart. 

“The retail experience, as well as the typical retail job description, will look quite different in the next decade or two, as new technology becomes more affordable and adapted by more people, and general retailers move to online,” said John Challenger, Chief Executive Officer of global outplacement and executive coaching firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc.

Between 2010 and 2016, Amazon’s North America revenues zoomed from $16 billion to $80 billion – more than triple the sales of Sears, he said. 

That has meant layoffs and store closings. It has also meant hiring at “fulfillment centers” and warehouses, as well as for engineers who can enable Internet strategy.

But when it comes to retail, the explosion of technology is not entirely a one-way street that leads consumers online, Challenger said: Retailers in the real, non-digital world are soon going to see digital technologies become part of the customer experience.

For instance, “augment reality” technology can provide glasses that show a shopper just the goods she wants. A customer will soon be able to walk down a store aisle and see, for example, most of the items blurred – expect for those that are gluten-free. Or vegan. Or kosher. Or whatever the shopper wants.

WAGES STALLED OUT IN ATLANTA

And that means that retail jobs could start adding jobs other than in warehouse and shipping.

“Herein lies the opportunity for retailers to satisfy the needs of differing shopping tastes while reducing the number of overwhelmed customers with aisles of products that won’t be purchased,” Challenger said. “Some of these new technologies will ultimately create jobs.” 

______________________

SOME CLOSURES ANNOUNCED THIS YEAR

                      Number of stores   .... reason     

RadioShack     1,000                Bankruptcy

Payless                 800                 Bankruptcy

Sears/Kmart      308                 Cost-cutting

The Limited        250                 Bankruptcy

HHGregg              220                 Bankruptcy

JC Penney           140                 Restructuring

Macy's                     68                 Restructuring

Abercrombie & Fitch 60         Cost-cutting

Winn-Dixie          20                    Restructuring

Source: Challenger, Gray & Christmas

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