For any child that grew up in the era of G.I. Joe, Transformers and Care Bears, there was no greater experience than wandering the cavernous, local Toys R Us store. I remember walking down the aisles, with floors polished to the point you could see your reflection, and gazing upwards at pegs of action figures that seemed to extend into the clouds. Surely only the tallest giraffe like Geoffrey could reach their heights. I was a Toys R Us kid.
I’ve since grown up, but was saddened this week to learn that the mythic dream world of my childhood has been grounded by bankruptcy. The good news is that the retailer plans to keep all 1,600 locations open to fulfill kids’ dreams for the foreseeable future. Many people attribute this bad news to an overall lack of Toys R Us adapting to the online retail environment, although they tried with Amazon partnerships, or the shift in consumer-shopping patterns that are somewhat out of their control.
Whatever the reason, Toys R Us joins a long list of retailers that have declared bankruptcy or that are closing stores. Earlier this year, Credit Suisse estimated that a record 8,600 brick-and-mortar retail stores will close in 2017. To put that in a somewhat alarming context, in 2008, the start of the Great Recession, only 6,200 stores closed. Adding to, the same report postulates that within the next five years, as many as 25% of America’s malls will also close.
So, what does that mean for our workforce? While our government has supported efforts to create more coal mining and factory employment, traditional department stores have lost more jobs than either industry in recent history. In the past fifteen years, 46% of department store jobs have been eliminated, compared to 32% of coal jobs and 25% in factories.
The retail workforce is primarily comprised of women, minorities, youth and senior citizens. An analysis of retail workers shows that while their average wage is $14.42 per hour for full-time employment, 58% of the laborforce is made up of low-wage workers making an average hourly rate of $9.61. Digging a bit deeper, this low-wage retail workforce is 63% female, 40% minority and 26% living in or near poverty. What happens when their employers disappear?
One of the key areas of community reinvestment is economic development activities, including job creation for low- and moderate-income workers. Banks can receive CRA credit for supporting community programs and nonprofits that provide job skills training, job creation and services for low-wage workers seeking employment. There’s no lack of need. In its 2015 State of the Nonprofit Sector Report, the Nonprofit Finance Fund found nationally that job availability was the third highest community need, only behind affordable housing and youth development.
In the coming years, as retail activity continues to shift online, the opportunity for financial institutions to support economic development will only grow. Partnering with community organizations that not only address the immediate needs of citizens, but also work to empower them economically and drive their upward mobility will be crucial. Bank staff should start building relationships today that will ensure the sustainability of our cities and communities for years to come.
 Chris Isadore, “Malls are doomed: 25% will be gone in 5 years,” CNN Money, June 2, 2017, available at http://money.cnn.com/2017/06/02/news/economy/doomed-malls/index.html
 Chris Isadore, “Department stores have lost more jobs than coal mines,” CNN Money, May 18, 2017, available at http://money.cnn.com/2017/05/12/news/companies/retailers-dying/index.html
 “The Demographics of the Retail Workforce,” Demos.com, available at http://www.demos.org/data-byte/demographics-retail-workforce
 Nonprofit Finance Fund, “State of the Nonprofit Sector 2015 Survey,” April 27, 2015, available at http://www.nonprofitfinancefund.org/learn/survey