The Retail Industry and Its Impact on the Economy

Woman shopping
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Retail is how producers of goods and services get their products to the consumer. Retailers often get their goods directly from the manufacturer. That is when a commodity becomes a finished product. 

Retailers can also buy products from a middleman, known as a wholesaler or distributor. The wholesaling company consolidates the products from around the world. It repackages them for easier marketing and distribution. Retailers are the last stop in the supply chain before the products end up in your shopping cart.

Importance of the Retail Industry to the U.S. Economy

Retail sales measure the performance of the retail industry. The U.S. Census publishes a report on retail sales every month. The most current statistics are in the U.S. retail sales report

In 2019, the U.S. retail industry generated $5.4 trillion in sales. This amount has tripled since 1992, when it was $1.8 trillion.

The largest category within retail is automotive, with $1.2 trillion in sales.

Food and beverage stores have the highest income, at $773 billion. Online retailers, vending machines, and direct sales stores follow at $761 billion. Online sales contributed $667 billion, compared to $35 billion in 1992. This dramatic increase is due to the development and popularity of online shopping.

Retailers were severely impacted in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, losing over 2.2 million jobs. By the end of the year, the industry had gained back 1.9 million jobs. The median pay was $13.13 per hour in 2020. The total number of sales jobs—4.6 million—is not expected to change through 2029.

The COVID-19 pandemic hit the retail industry very hard. Governments told shoppers to avoid any stores except essential services, such as grocery and drug stores.

The most important time of the year in retailing is the holiday shopping season. It starts on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. Almost 20% of annual retail sales occur between Black Friday and Christmas. This season includes Cyber Monday, the biggest day of the year for online deals.

How Retail Works

Retailers make money by purchasing goods from suppliers and manufacturers. They raise prices well above the cost of labor, equipment, and distribution. Everyone along the supply chain does this.

Retailers can sometimes make more money if they bypass wholesalers and purchase directly from the factory.

This price increase is known as a markup or the retailer's profit margin. It's typically 100% (double the cost) at each stage. That's called "keystone markup." It's needed to cover costs and provide enough profit to pay stockholders or private owners.

Examples of Retailers

The most common examples of retailing are traditional brick-and-mortar stores. These include giants such as Best Buy, Walmart, and Target. But retailing includes even the smallest kiosks at your local mall.

Examples of online retailers are Amazon, eBay, and Netflix. Even though they are growing the fastest, they still only represent 12% of the total retail industry.

Many retailers focus on home-delivery sales. These include Schwan's food and Casper mattresses, while others sell through home-based parties. The most well-known are Avon, Pampered Chef, and Cocoa Exchange. A small group relies on TV channels like QVC, the Home Shopping Network, and Evine.​​

Retailers don't just sell goods; they also sell services. Restaurants, hotels, and bars are all included in retailing. 

Many retailers combine different distribution methods. One example is Kroger, which offers both brick-and-mortar stores and online delivery. Large stores often also provide food services, like a restaurant. This reduced cost and increased consumer appeal is an example of economies of scale.

Online Retailing

Online retailers experienced a boom in 2020, with most consumers turning online for their shopping needs. E-commerce sales increased by 32% over the fourth quarter of 2020.

Mobile devices, especially cell phones, are becoming the biggest source of internet traffic. At least 15% of U.S. adults shop online every week. Over half of Americans have used a cellphone to make an online purchase.

Although two-thirds of online shoppers prefer to buy from brick-and-mortar stores, they decide based on price. It's easier to compare prices online.

Almost half (45%) of Americans use their cellphones while in a store to find a better price online. Another 12% have used their phones to pay for an item while in a store.

The Future of Brick-and-Mortar Stores

Shopping centers and other brick-and-mortar stores have faced many challenges since the rise in popularity of online shopping. The COVID-19 pandemic has made those challenges even harsher. Many well-known stores are still struggling to survive.

COVID-19 Pandemic

In March and April of 2020, state governments instructed non-essential retailers to close. Residents were asked to shelter in place in order to reduce the spread of the highly contagious coronavirus. Grocery stores, convenience stores, and pharmacies were allowed to remain open. Restaurants were only allowed to offer take-out.

Most stores that did stay open instituted policies to allow social distancing.

Many large-scale warehouse-type stores limited the number of customers allowed in the store at one time—an action that might cut revenues. Others had to hire more workers to meet a surge in demand. Many stores, including non-essential businesses, expanded pick-up capabilities.

Several well-known department stores declared bankruptcy due to levels of high debt during the pandemic. These include J. Crew, JCPenney, and Neiman Marcus. These stores plan to remain in business.

Online Retail

Even before the pandemic, the popularity of online retailing was destroying shopping malls. Research from the State University of New York at Buffalo showed that 96% of the decline in shopping mall revenue was due to Amazon alone.

Well-known brands such as Payless, Z Gallerie, and Charlotte Russe announced bankruptcy in the first four months of 2019.

High-end retailers were not exempt from filing for bankruptcy, as Barney's New York, Roberto Cavalli, and Sonia Rykiel also liquidated. The shift to online shopping was not the only reason why they failed. Many retailers refused to shift to changing consumer preferences. Others took on too much debt or otherwise made poor business decisions.