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    What Giant Skeletons and Puppy Shortages Told Us About the 2020 Economy

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    Retailing’s Tumultuous Year Began Before the Pandemic

    AdvertisementContinue reading the main storySupported byContinue reading the main storyRetailing’s Tumultuous Year Began Before the PandemicThe industry employs millions of people, and the upheaval it experienced played out in the lives of many Americans.Houston Premium Outlets, a mall in Cypress, Texas, on Black Friday.Credit…Go Nakamura for The New York TimesSapna Maheshwari and Dec. 29, 2020, 5:00 a.m. ETThe retail industry was in the midst of a transformation before 2020. But the onset of the pandemic accelerated that change, fundamentally reordering how and where people shop, and rippling across the broader economy.Many stores closed for good, as chains cut physical locations or filed for bankruptcy, displacing everyone from highly paid executives to hourly workers. Amazon grew even more powerful and unavoidable as millions of people bought goods online during lockdowns. The divide between essential businesses allowed to stay open and nonessential ones forced to close drove shoppers to big-box chains like Walmart, Target and Dick’s and worsened struggling department stores’ woes. The apparel industry and a slew of malls were battered as millions of Americans stayed home and a litany of dress-up events, from proms to weddings, were canceled or postponed.This year’s civil unrest and its thorny issues for American society also hit retailers. Businesses closed because of protests over George Floyd’s killing by a white police officer, and they reckoned with their own failings when it came to race. The challenges faced by working parents, including the cost and availability of basic child care during the pandemic, were keenly felt by women working at stores from CVS to Bloomingdale’s. And there were questions around the treatment of workers, as retailers and their backers treated employees shoddily during bankruptcies or failed to offer hazard pay or adequate notifications about workplace Covid-19 outbreaks.Many Americans felt the retail upheaval — the industry is the second-biggest private employment sector in the United States — and some shared their experiences this year with The New York Times.Joyce Bonaime of Cabazon, Calif., is collecting unemployment benefits for the first time after working in retailing since the 1970s.Credit…Maggie Shannon for The New York Times‘That’s what I did my whole life’Joyce Bonaime, a 63-year-old in Cabazon, Calif., has worked in retailing since the 1970s. In the past 14 months, she became one of many store employees whose lives were upended by bankruptcies — first at Barneys New York and more recently at Brooks Brothers.Ms. Bonaime had spent about 10 years as a full-time stock coordinator for a Barneys outlet at Desert Hills Premium Outlets near her home, overseeing the shipping and receiving of designer wares, when the retailer filed for bankruptcy and liquidated late last year.“Barneys treated people very badly at the end there,” Ms. Bonaime said. The retailer, she said, sent inconsistent messages about severance payments and the timing of store closures, which limited people from finding other jobs just before the holiday shopping season.After Barneys, Ms. Bonaime secured a full-time stockroom position at Brooks Brothers in the same outlet mall. But the pandemic forced the store to temporarily close in March, and she was furloughed. She anticipated returning once the store reopened this summer. But Ms. Bonaime’s job was terminated this month and lost her health benefits. She is now collecting unemployment checks for the first time in her life.When Ms. Bonaime started her career, working at shoe stores and completing a management training program at one chain, retailers had a different relationship with employees and communities, she said.“We went through training on the bones in the foot and the muscles; we knew a lot about our industry,” she said. “We would reach out to local high schools and work with the cheerleading team and find a shoe they liked for outfits and give them a discount and make sure they had the right sizes.”Ms. Bonaime, who is getting by right now, feels stuck. She had planned to work a few more years before retiring, but her options are limited. Businesses at the outlet mall are struggling — and it was already hard to interview last year as a woman in her 60s, she said. Amazon is hiring, but she is concerned about the risk of accidents in a warehouse.“This pandemic just changes everything because I would have no problem getting a job otherwise,” she said. “I just don’t think there’s going to be anything in retail, and that’s what I did my whole life.”Jeffrey Kalinsky, the founder of Nordstrom’s Jeffrey boutiques, says he is not ready to retire from retailing.Credit…Maggie Steber for The New York Times‘I was collateral damage’Soon after the pandemic hit, Nordstrom said it would permanently close its three high-end Jeffrey boutiques, which were founded by Jeffrey Kalinsky and acquired by the retailer in 2005. Mr. Kalinsky, a Nordstrom executive who had focused on bringing designer apparel to the retailer, retired as part of the move.The Jeffrey stores, in New York, Atlanta and Palo Alto, Calif., had dressed the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow and even been lampooned on “Saturday Night Live.” The first location, in Atlanta, would have celebrated its 30th anniversary in August.Mr. Kalinsky, 58, said in an interview that he was recovering from Covid-19 at the end of March when he became aware that the stores might remain shut after a temporary closure.“It felt like I had a gun pointed at me,” he said. “The folks I always dealt with at Nordstrom were always very transparent, and I can only surmise that they were looking at how to position themselves to get through this period — and I was collateral damage.”He had once told the Jeffrey staff that it was like the original cast in a Broadway musical, performing at an “amazing level” for customers every day. The hardest part of this year was telling employees about the closing, he said.“That day was probably the most difficult, emotional day of my entire life,” he said. “I felt just gutted. It was indescribable.” Employees have told him that they “miss the merchandise, they miss the edit, they miss the specialness.”His goal was for Jeffrey to carry the best merchandise but “sell it an environment that was very democratic,” he said. “I wanted to showcase it all and wanted it all to be next to each other. I wanted the friction of Gucci next to Dries next to Comme des Garçons. I wanted to feel the tension in a good way because that, in my opinion, is how the perfect closet is.”Business & EconomyLatest UpdatesUpdated Dec. 23, 2020, 8:59 a.m. ETExtension of federal jobless benefits may not prevent a brief lapse.Frustration rises at Britain’s ports over clearing a logjam of thousands of trucks.How the aid bill changes the food stamp program.Mr. Kalinsky hopes to find a job designing for an American brand, saying he is not prepared to retire from retailing. He wonders if Jeffrey could have survived the pandemic by working with vendors and landlords.“We had an impressive business, a wonderful clientele, and we would have been fine — but did we have a piggy bank for Covid? No,” he said.Trent Griffin-Braaf shifted his passenger van business in Albany, N.Y., to e-commerce deliveries.Credit…David Steinberg for The New York TimesA man with a vanTrent Griffin-Braaf started this year feeling more confident than ever. The transportation company he created to ferry guests from hotels in the Albany, N.Y., area to local attractions like the racetrack in Saratoga Springs was catching on.But when the coronavirus shut down tourism, weddings and conferences, Mr. Griffin-Braaf’s passenger vans were idled and his business was in jeopardy. “We were really in a rough place,” he said.In the late summer, his company became a carrier for Amazon and shifted to e-commerce deliveries. His team of 70 drivers and other staff include immigrants from Africa and India, workers laid off from restaurants, a struggling nail-salon owner and recent college grads “just trying to figure it out” during the pandemic.His drivers cover a 150-mile radius around Albany, including many rural areas where the number of Amazon shoppers is increasing, he said. “All you see around here is Amazon,” he said. “Come work for Amazon.”Many of his drivers were earning 10 hours of overtime a week during the peak holiday season. “I feel blessed to be busy, because so many people aren’t right now,” he said.Mr. Griffin-Braaf, 36, has not given up on passenger vans. He has started driving workers living in parts of Albany with limited public transportation to their jobs at distribution centers and other businesses far from bus lines.On the weekends, he volunteers the vans to drive families to visit loved ones in upstate prisons. Mr. Griffin-Braaf, who served time in prison years ago, said that long term, he hoped to have tractor-trailers to move e-commerce packages across the country, and to offer van service in other “transportation deserts” around the state so people could get to work.“I know how hard it is to get a job if you don’t have a car, and I have seen how hard it is when you don’t get visits in prison,” he said. “I have lived these things.”Lauren Jackson owns and runs the Hair Hive in Buffalo with her sisters.Credit…Mustafa Hussain for The New York Times‘We are glad you are here’Lauren Jackson and her two sisters inadvertently chose the wrong time to open the first Black-owned beauty supply store in their hometown, Buffalo: March 7, two weeks before the state ordered them to shut down.So the sisters reopened it as an “essential business,” stocking hand sanitizers, masks and other pandemic necessities. Their store, the Hair Hive, reopened in early April, which helped them build a customer base while competitors stayed closed.“Everything happens for a reason,” said Ms. Jackson, 28.She and her sisters, Danielle Jackson and Brianna Lannie, had talked about opening the store for several years. It is five minutes from their childhood home on the east side of Buffalo, a predominantly Black neighborhood where their parents still live.The sisters were initially intimidated about trying to break into the well-established industry.“We didn’t want to tell anyone so they wouldn’t say, ‘You can’t compete with them,’” Ms. Jackson said. “We didn’t even tell our parents.”The sisters got a loan from a family member and another from a Buffalo nonprofit. Lauren Jackson said she had watched other Black-owned businesses in her neighborhood come and go over the years, including salons, barbershops and restaurants that often closed because the younger generation didn’t want to take over after the founding family members retired. Ms. Jackson wants to break that trend.“A lot of people come into the store because we are Black-owned,” she said. “They feel comfortable knowing we can relate with what’s going on with their hair. They tell us, ‘We are glad you are here.’”Feisal Ahmed returned to his sales job at Macy’s in Manhattan after a four-month shutdown.Credit…Haruka Sakaguchi for The New York Times‘Scared of what might be coming’In June, as the first wave of the coronavirus was finally coming under control in New York, Feisal Ahmed got a call from his manager at Macy’s.Would he like to return to his job selling luxury watches when the store in Herald Square reopened? “I am already there,” he told his boss. “Put me first in line.”Mr. Ahmed was in his early 20s and a recent emigrant from Bangladesh when he started working at Macy’s in 1994. He met his wife in the store, was able to make a down payment on a house in Astoria, Queens, and saved up enough money to start his own laundry, which he eventually sold.“I owe a lot to this job,” he said.But after an initial feeling of relief and excitement to return to work after four months of lockdowns, reality set in for Mr. Ahmed. He has gone some days without selling a single watch, for which he would earn a commission.Last week, business picked up for a few days, driven by last-minute Christmas shopping, but it was nowhere near a normal holiday pace. “The pandemic, job security — people are scared to spend money,” he said.Still, Mr. Ahmed feels lucky. In New York City, retail jobs make up 9 percent of private-sector employment, and many have been slow to return. At stores selling clothing and clothing accessories, employment is down more than 40 percent from a year ago, according to a recent report by the state comptroller’s office.Mr. Ahmed said that as a member of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, he had certain job protections. But he worries about what the winter will bring, as the pandemic continues to keep many shoppers away.“Employees are scared of what might be coming,” he said.AdvertisementContinue reading the main story More

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    Amazon Workers Near Vote on Joining Union at Alabama Warehouse

    AdvertisementContinue reading the main storySupported byContinue reading the main storyAmazon Workers Near Vote on Joining Union at Alabama WarehouseThe election, expected early next year, will be one of the few times that employees of the e-commerce giant have had an opportunity to decide whether to join a union.Amazon has gone on a hiring spree during the pandemic, adding 1,400 employees a day.Credit…Ruth Fremson/The New York TimesMichael Corkery and Dec. 22, 2020, 5:27 p.m. ETThousands of workers at an Amazon warehouse near Birmingham, Ala., moved closer this week to holding a vote on whether to form a union, a milestone at the nation’s fastest growing large employer and a coup for organized labor, which has tried for years to make inroads at the e-commerce giant.After three days of hearings before the National Labor Relations Board, which concluded on Tuesday, Amazon and the union agreed on one of the most crucial details of an election: which types of workers in the facility would be allowed to vote.The agreement between Amazon and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union sets the stage for one of the few times that the company’s workers have had an opportunity to vote on whether to unionize.The vote at the fulfillment center in Bessemer, Ala., about 14 miles from Birmingham, could cover roughly 5,800 workers, including full-time and seasonal employees.Amazon and the union still need to agree whether the voting will take place by mail or in person. The election is expected to be held early next year, though the N.LR.B. still needs to set a date.The previous union election at Amazon involved a few dozen technical workers at a warehouse in Delaware in 2014. They decided not to unionize.Amazon is undertaking a historic hiring spree during the pandemic, adding 1,400 employees a day and putting the company on a pace to become the nation’s largest private employer in a few years.“We don’t believe this group represents the majority of our employees’ views,” an Amazon spokeswoman, Heather Knox, said in a statement about the union. “Our employees choose to work at Amazon because we offer some of the best jobs available everywhere we hire, and we encourage anyone to compare our overall pay, benefits and workplace environment to any other company with similar jobs.”The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union represents workers at brick-and-mortar retailers like Macy’s flagship store in Herald Square, H&M and Zara. The union’s ranks also include a diverse mix of workers at places like the General Mills factory that makes cereal in Iowa and poultry plants across the South.The union was involved in opposing Amazon’s proposal to build a second headquarters in New York, around the same time it was trying to organize workers at the company’s large warehouse on Staten Island. But that 2018 effort never progressed to a formal union election.Business & EconomyLatest UpdatesUpdated Dec. 22, 2020, 6:42 p.m. ETNew Labor Department rule would let employers distribute tips more widely.France reopens border with Britain to trucks, requiring rapid Covid-19 tests for drivers.Covid comments get a tech C.E.O. in hot water, again.The pandemic rekindled attention in Amazon’s labor force, part of a broader focus on the safety, pay and sacrifices of essential workers in grocery stores and e-commerce centers who helped keep goods flowing to homebound consumers during this year’s shutdowns.Amazon also faces increasing scrutiny, both on Capitol Hill and by state officials, about its growing might in the retail industry and its role as a large employer.Amazon has trumpeted its investments in safety, including providing its workers with free Covid-19 testing in labs it set up and operates. It also points to its starting wage of $15 an hour and health care benefits. Labor advocates and some elected officials have still raised concerns about the rates of injuries in warehouses, inflexible work schedules and the surveillance of workers to maximize productivity.The company has also been accused of retaliating against workers who speak out. Last week, the N.L.R.B. said it had found merit in a worker’s claim that Amazon illegally retaliated against him for staging protests this spring outside the Staten Island warehouse to draw attention to concerns about safety during the pandemic. Amazon said the worker had been fired for “a clear violation of our standards of conduct and harassment policy.”The Bessemer warehouse opened just as Covid-19 arrived in the United States. Amazon announced plans for it in 2018, part of an expansion into midsize metropolitan areas so the company could store more products closer to customers for quick delivery. The local economy used to depend on steel industry jobs, but those have largely disappeared, and Amazon, which pledged to hire 1,500 people, received $51 million in local and state tax incentives. Average pay at the warehouse is $15.30 an hour, Ms. Knox said.In November, the union submitted its petition to hold the election, saying it had sufficient support among the workers it said should be part of the bargaining unit. The company asked for more time to prepare a response, citing the busy holiday shopping season.“This is a year where more consumers than ever are shopping online and expecting prompt and accurate deliveries,” Amazon said in a filing with the N.L.R.B.Haggling over the terms of a union election can drag on for months, but this process moved relatively quickly. The union filed a petition for the election with the N.L.R.B. about a week before Thanksgiving.Over the course of the hearing, which began on Friday, lawyers for the union and Amazon discussed how many workers at the center should be allowed to vote. Amazon argued that temporary workers, usually hired during the holiday season, should be included, along with full-time and part-time employees performing the same tasks.The union agreed to include the seasonal workers, even though it means expanding the pool of employees it needs to win over. But by conceding the seasonal issue, the union probably avoided days of testimony from Amazon that could have stretched well past Christmas and slowed some of the organizing momentum.“Our interest is in making sure there is an election soon,” Richard Rouco, a lawyer for the union, said on Monday.The other sticking point is whether the voting should occur in person or by mail. Amazon wants the election to occur in person, even though the N.L.R.B. has raised serious concerns about exposing its election monitors to the coronavirus in the Bessemer area, where there has been a high rate of virus infections.Harry Johnson, a lawyer for Amazon, suggested that local hotel rooms and buses could be rented exclusively for the federal officials to prevent them from being exposed while they conducted the election.Mr. Rouco retorted, “I am not going to let Amazon buy a city” to prevent workers from voting by mail.The N.LR.B.’s regional office in Atlanta is expected to rule on the mail-voting issue early next month.AdvertisementContinue reading the main story More

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    Retail Sales Fell More Than Expected as Spending Slowed

    AdvertisementContinue reading the main storySupported byContinue reading the main storyRed Flags for Economy as Retail Sales Fall for a Second MonthDrops in November and October raise questions about how retailers are faring in the all-important holiday shopping season.Shoppers at Gateway Mall in Lincoln, Neb., on Black Friday. Retail sales fell 1.1 percent in November, the Commerce Department reported.Credit…Walker Pickering for The New York TimesMichael Corkery and Dec. 16, 2020Updated 5:15 p.m. ETConsumer spending has been one of the few bright spots in the pandemic-battered economy. Since the spring, Americans have spent more each month even in the face of mounting job losses, political turmoil and recurring virus outbreaks.But that streak is over now. U.S. retail sales declined last month and in October, raising questions about how retailers are faring in the all-important holiday shopping season and about the stability of the broader economy.Sales fell 1.1 percent in November — more than economists had predicted — as spending on categories like automobiles, electronic stores, clothing and restaurants and bars softened, according to a report from the Commerce Department on Wednesday.The Commerce Department also revised its tally for October to a 0.1 percent decline, from an increase of 0.3 percent that had been reported last month.Economists said the declines were “warning signs” that the economy was entering a rough patch and in need of a jolt from another round of government stimulus.“When the U.S. consumer fails to spend, the world’s economy feels it,” said Beth Ann Bovino, chief U.S. economist at S&P Global.The November slide, in particular, adds new urgency to this week’s discussion on Capitol Hill over a stimulus package. On Wednesday, top Democrats and Republicans were said to be nearing a $900 billion deal that would expand unemployment benefits and provide new stimulus checks to consumers.Consumer spending accounts for roughly 70 percent of total economic growth, so propping up retail sales is central to any plans to stoke a recovery. And economists have been warning that failure to enact more financial support for the unemployed would eventually jeopardize the progress made in reviving the economy.“Weak retail sales in the fall, along with a recent increase in unemployment insurance claims, are warning signs for the economy at the end of 2020,” Gus Faucher, chief economist at PNC Financial Services Group, said in a research note.The uncertainty around holiday spending has been exacerbated as retailers pushed annual sales events into October, in a bid to jump-start the season and prevent crowded stores and shipping delays in November. Many major chains reported sales gains in October, but they were not certain about how that would affect spending in November and December.Business & EconomyLatest UpdatesUpdated Dec. 16, 2020, 2:57 p.m. ETNew Mexico sends $1,200 payments to about 130,000 unemployed residents.Fed chair says the case for more pandemic aid ‘is very, very strong.’How Are You Managing the Holidays in a Pandemic?Mr. Faucher also noted that the boom in shopping this spring after virus restrictions were lifted reduced “the need for purchases at the end of the year.” Amazon’s “Prime Day,” an annual event for online deals, was held in October, and spurred most major chains to introduce bargains around the same time, which may have also encouraged earlier holiday spending.The report on Wednesday showed the steepest declines at electronics and appliance stores, gas stations, clothing stores, department stores and bars and restaurants. The decline in apparel spending has been part of a broader shift this year, as many Americans remain isolated at home, aren’t going to the office for work, have postponed events and are avoiding shopping at malls.Spending at bars and restaurants tumbled 4 percent from October and was down about 17 percent compared with a year earlier, reflecting the strain on these establishments. With restrictions on indoor dining taking effect again in cities like New York and public officials warning of a difficult winter ahead, spending at restaurants is likely to remain lower for several months. Spending on gasoline also declined in November, as more families opted not to travel for Thanksgiving; many people are planning to stay home for Christmas also. Auto sales fell 1.7 percent in November, after months of gains.Consumers have not been following normal shopping patterns this year, making month-to-month sales difficult to predict. Some analysts had not expected the rebound in sales to have lasted so long, given the grim economic realities for millions of Americans. By the summer, retail sales had returned to pre-pandemic levels, helped by previous rounds of stimulus, job growth and low interest rates.But the holiday season, which can make or break a retailer’s business for the year, has been difficult to gauge. Black Friday, which has traditionally signaled the start of the holiday shopping season, was also largely a bust for many retailers as cases were flaring. Some companies reported that in-person traffic that day declined by as much as 50 percent from last year, as shoppers concerned about the virus stayed away from the stores. Still, online sales have been strong through the holidays and November sales were up 4 percent over last year’s figures.The National Retail Federation, an industry trade group, pointed to the online increase from last year as a sign that the holiday season was off to a strong start for retailers. But the organization also said in a Wednesday release that additional fiscal stimulus from Congress was needed, particularly as the remainder of the season remains so unsure because of the spread of the virus.With the new concerns around shopping in person, retailers have been racing to accommodate a surge in shipping demand, grappling with new surcharges and delays with major carriers including UPS and FedEx.But there are limits on how much the boom in online shopping can prop up the overall economy. “There are only so many televisions you can buy,” said Ms. Bovino, the economist at S&P Global. “At some point, you reach saturation.”She said the decline in November sales was “much worse than expected” and reflected several troublesome realities. Unemployed Americans are not able to spend as freely on discretionary items or gifts. And for the workers who still have jobs and remain financially secure, Ms. Bovino said many of them stayed out of stores because of the rising cases.Consumers also spent more on groceries and building supplies in November — reflecting a new focus on necessities.“The economy is hitting a very rough patch,” Mr. Faucher said. “Although widespread vaccine distribution will support stronger economic growth by mid-2020, conditions will remain soft until then, especially if Congress is unable to pass another stimulus bill.”AdvertisementContinue reading the main story More

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    With 3 Billion Packages to Go, Online Shopping Faces Tough Holiday Test

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