Friday, March 6, 2009

Retail job loss in Tennessee surges

Sector lost 14,300 workers in January By Wendy Lee • THE TENNESSEAN • March 6, 2009 When Lacey Keller started work at the American Artisan gallery three years ago, she looked on the Harding Road crafts store as a second home. She loved interacting with shoppers and helping people buy jewelry, ceramics and other gifts. Today, the 27-year-old Keller is back on the job market. The gallery will close at the end of the month and Keller will lose her job as co-manager. She has applied for 15 or 20 other jobs, but no offers have materialized. Count Keller among the thousands of retail employees who have been turned loose into an uncertain job market in recent weeks. State data show a loss of 14,300 retail jobs in Tennessee in January, with many of those layoffs across Middle Tennessee. Retail job loss in January outstripped the volume of cuts in manufacturing and construction — perhaps the two categories that have been battered the most by recession here and nationally. Analysts attribute the spike in retail job losses to dim holiday sales last year and anticipated weaker sales this year as consumers rein in spending. "With the expected decline in retail sales, that's why there is a particularly high level of layoffs in January" in that sector, said Burt P. Flickinger III, managing director of New York-based Strategic Resource Group. Other economic news on Thursday included: >> Unemployment rates in all 95 counties in Tennessee rose in January from a month earlier. >> The Nashville-Murfreesboro area reported 8 percent unemployment, slightly higher than the U.S. rate of 7.6 percent for January and up 1.5 percentage points from December. >> Perry County had the highest jobless rate in Tennessee at 27.3 percent. >> Williamson County's rate was third lowest in the state at 6.8 percent, but that was still well above the county's 3.9 percent jobless rate of January 2008. Local data track trend Retail employment hadn't been stellar in the run-up to Christmas last year, but the retail sector's headcount statewide still managed to hover around 330,000 jobs for the last few months of 2008. It dipped by 6,500 jobs statewide in December and took an even bigger fall in January. Local job losses mirror the national trend. Retail employment in the United States through January was down nearly 600,000 jobs since a peak in November 2007, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported. New national jobs data will be released today. "The recession has taken another leg down," said John Challenger, CEO of Chicago-based research firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc. "Retail is reeling because consumer spending has really dropped." Several retailers announced closures in the Nashville area, including Circuit City, Goody's Family Clothing and the Macy's store in Bellevue. Macy's notified the state last month that it planned to lay off 95 workers in March in Davidson County. "What we're seeing are businesses starting to lay off, anticipating a drop in sales," said David Penn, director of the Business & Economic Research Center at Middle Tennessee State University. "They are actually cutting hours, cutting the work force before things turn worse, which makes things worse." Keller said competition is stiff for bew jobs. She recently applied to become an assistant buyer for another retail store, only to compete with roughly 500 other applicants. Local stores such as Men of Stature Big and Tall Clothiers here are taking a defensive stance by not hiring at all. The store has two full-time employees and one part-timer working on its sales floor. "We decided to stick with what we got for a while until things improve," store manager Robbie Bishop said. Other out-of-work retail employees hope things get better soon. Jeff Billiu, a former sales manager for Circuit City in Bellevue, found himself out of a job when that store closed last month as the entire chain fell victim to bankruptcy. Billiu said he is in the running for a job at another store, pending background checks and a drug test. "I'm one of the lucky ones," Billiu said Thursday. Meanwhile, national retailers released figures Thursday showing that sales kept falling in February, although not nearly as badly as in January. Most of the gains were turned in by discount stores, including Walmart. "The tone was a little better, but the poster child of the improvement was Walmart," said Michael P. Niemira, the chief economist for the International Council of Shopping Centers. Meanwhile, sales at many luxury merchants swooned. Saks Inc. suffered a 26 percent decline in February, while Neiman Marcus Group Inc.'s overall same-store sales fell nearly 21 percent.

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