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posted: 7/16/2017 7:19 AM

How our online shopping habits are hurting American jobs

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  • About a third of adults buy something on a computer or phone at least once per week, up from 21 percent in 2013, according to a new survey from a consulting firm that watches e-commerce trends.

    About a third of adults buy something on a computer or phone at least once per week, up from 21 percent in 2013, according to a new survey from a consulting firm that watches e-commerce trends.
    (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)

 
 

More and more Americans are embracing a trend that labor groups have come to fear: We are shopping online now about as often as we take out the trash.

About a third of adults buy something on a computer or phone at least once per week, up from 21 percent in 2013, according to a new survey from a consulting firm that watches e-commerce trends.

The poll of roughly 1,600 people across the country also found that nearly half prefer to purchase goods on the web, the Walker Sands data show. These days, that includes just about everything: groceries, prescription refills, mattresses, party dresses. Just 4 percent of respondents said they avoided online deliveries entirely.

Our shifting preference, however, is taking a toll on certain retail jobs.

"It's gotten so easy and convenient," said analyst Erin Jordan, who led the report. "People are getting used to that."

The data build on findings last year from the Pew Research Center, which reported that 8 in 10 Americans shop online. When the researchers first asked that question in 2000, only 22 percent of respondents said they'd ever ordered something on a screen.

Since 2000, a whopping 46 percent of department store jobs have vanished, government data show. The pace is picking up.

At least 5,300 stores have announced closures this year, which is triple the number over the same period in 2016, according to data from Fung Global Retail & Technology, a New York think tank.

Between 2013 and 2017, America's clothing stores lost about 64,000 jobs. From January to June, general merchandise retailers, such as Sears and Macy's, saw 31,000 jobs disappear.

These positions, which pay a mean hourly wage of $13 an hour, are disproportionately held by women (60 percent). They're scattered nationwide but tend to concentrate in cities. Though more store clerks have lost their jobs in recent years than, say, coal workers, retail clusters don't economically bolster specific states the way coal did for West Virginia.

The brick-and-mortar decline has coincided with an e-commerce surge. The National Retail Federation, a trade group in Washington, expects that online retail this year will grow between 8 and 12 percent, or up to about three times the broader industry's rate.

This isn't the first time a cultural shift has rocked the retail world.

Back in the '70s and '80s, the rise of malls in suburbia created more work in outer-city communities but wiped out downtown shopping centers. Heightened interest in online shopping today is doing the same thing to the country's storefronts -- "only faster," said Mark Cohen, director of retail studies at Columbia University's business school.

The trend, Cohen said, "is in a state of acceleration. And the Internet is going to keep growing."

Driving this trend, Cohen said: Older shoppers are getting less skeptical about typing their credit card number into a machine. And younger generations, he added, are adopting voice assistants, such as Google Home and Amazon's Alexa, that can make the orders for them.

Meanwhile, entry-level jobs in stores that are still thriving aren't proliferating at the rate they once did, thanks in part to automation.

Over the next seven years, per the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of cashiers in the United States is projected to grow 2 percent, while the average for all jobs is expected to increase 7 percent.

"Advances in technology, such as self-service checkout stands in retail stores and increasing online sales, will continue to limit the need for cashiers," according to the BLS website.

Amazon reported what it called record-breaking sales last week. The e-commerce giant said sales from Prime Day, its annual shopping event, surged 60 percent from last year's 30-hour-window. (The company didn't release any hard sales numbers.) Amazon is owned by Jeffrey P. Bezos, the owner of The Washington Post.

As Prime Day hype flooded social media -- the sale trended on both Facebook and Twitter -- the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents retail workers, released a statement urging buyers to "examine the high cost of Amazon's business model."

"Amazon's brutal vision for retail is one where automation needlessly replaces good people and good jobs," said Marc Perrone, the group's president.

While Amazon does embrace automation -- the company opened a grocery store in Seattle last year that uses door sensors instead of cashiers -- it employs more than 90,000 full-time workers across its fulfillment network and aims to create roughly 25,000 more part-time warehouse jobs by next spring.

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