• Susan Dickenson

NRF’s Ellen Davis sets the record straight

One Of The Things That Stayed With me from this year’s National Retail Federation conference, held in January in New York, is a statement made by NRF President/CEO Matthew Shay during his State of the Retail Industry keynote address.

“Disruption and change” had arrived in the form of a new president – “a retail politician,” Shay said on that January morning. Washington gridlock will “thaw,” and we’ll see changes that will “generate growth and create jobs.”

At the conclusion of his talk, Shay introduced the next speaker, Ellen Davis, NRF senior vice president and executive director of the NRF Foundation, who talked about the unfilled jobs in retail – all 700,000 of them – and “RISE Up,” the NRF’s new retail training initiative to help fill those jobs.

“Over a year ago,” Davis said, “We asked a number of retail CEOs to share with us what three things keep them up at night. On every answer, jobs and talent were mentioned... so we buckled down and really got to work.”

In a presentation that followed, Kip Tindell, co-founder of The Container Store and the NRF’s chairman, concurred. “We know how exciting these retail jobs are,” he said. “We just have to make sure everyone else does.”

What an interesting bounce, I remember thinking at the time: The NRF president’s “we-need-more-jobs” statement followed by the NRF vice president and NRF chairman’s “we-have-too-many-unfilled-jobs” talks.

Since January, more store chains have closed, but RISE Up is going strong. A few weeks ago, the NRF was one of 200 business groups that asked Congress to reauthorize the bipartisan Perkins Career and Technical Education Act (which has since passed in the House). “Employers are reporting a shortage of skilled workers to fill in-demand positions,” NRF and the other groups said in a letter.

All of the above is why a recent report by Chuck Todd about the “brick and mortar retail crisis” caught my attention. In a Meet the Press Data Download segment, Todd presented a chart of data implying that as more Americans have found jobs, the retail industry’s employment numbers have dropped:

2014: Unemployment rate 6.2%, Retail Salesperson Employment 4.56 million

2016: Unemployment rate 4.9%, Retail Salesperson Employment 4.53 million

Retail is on the verge of hitting a crisis point, Todd said, because more people are working overall yet fewer are working in retail jobs.

Ellen Davis, the NRF executive I mentioned earlier, disagrees.

On June 27, Davis posted her own video segment, a “data re-download,” pointing out discrepancies in Todd’s numbers and, in particular, how the omission of several important facts from his analysis painted “a very distorted picture about retail jobs in this country.”

The number of people working in retail during the timeframe specified has not dropped, it has increased, Davis said. Todd’s analysis focused on just one subset of the retail workforce: retail sales workers, the only category that declined in that period. The broader set of all categories of store-based retail employees increased by 142,830.

Also, she says in the video, there are millions of retail industry employees that don’t work in stores and therefore are not included in Department of Labor statistics, the source for the NRF’s and Todd’s data.

She wrapped up by stating that brick and mortar stores aren’t going away, and that 9 out of 10 retail transactions still happen in a store.

“Our industry is in the midst of an incredible transformation. The lines between online and in-store shopping blur more and more every day. Retailers are adapting accordingly. While we agree (with Todd) on the political importance of our industry … we’ll have to push back on a media narrative that inaccurately portrays what’s happening in retail today.”

What do you think?

Susan DickensonSusan Dickenson | Editor in Chief

Susan Dickenson is the editor in chief of Home Accents Today, where she has spent more than a decade covering trending topics, best practices and news items pertaining to the manufacturing, retail and interior design segments of the home furnishings industry. A graduate of UNC, Dickenson spent 15 years in the Washington, D.C., area, writing and researching in both the public and private sector. After relocating to her native North Carolina in 2003, she freelanced as a writer of general interest, business, garden and home items for local and national publications before joining Home Accents Today in 2006 as retail editor.

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