Consumer spending makes up around 68 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product. Consumer spending is individuals and families purchasing groceries, clothing, recreation, stocks, insurance, education and much more. The transactions cover a broad swath of economic activity.
Much of the nation’s consumer spending is captured via retail trade. A useful retail trade definition is “the re-sale (sale without transformation) of new and used goods to the general public, for personal or household consumption or utilization.” Not all consumer spending is captured through retail trade transactions, but a large share is.
Broad-category examples of retail trade sectors are motor vehicle sales, furniture stores, electronic stores, building material stores, grocery stores, pharmacies, gas stations, clothing stores and department stores, among others.
Then there is the relatively new and emerging part of the retail trade sphere — non-store retailers. These are establishments that sell products on the internet. Examples include Amazon, Zappos, Overstock.com, or eBay. These types of retailers have grown rapidly in the past 15 years and their presence is reshaping the retail trade landscape.
Whereas in the past nearly all retail transactions were done through traditional brick-and-mortar stores, now a significant and growing segment is diverted to internet sales. The consumer shops online and FedEx (or like) delivers the product. One can see that the number of brick-and-mortar stores and the level of local sales across the country are being endangered by this economic evolution.
The brick-and-mortar reduction is beginning to show its economic presence in the United States employment numbers. While the U.S. economy is finally expanding at a healthy pace this side of the Great Recession, one of the few industries not rising with this tide is retail trade. While overall retail sales are increasing, employment is not.
Traditionally, as a population increases, retail trade employment grows simultaneously, since population growth and consumer spending volume is an integrated dynamic. If studied deeply, a certain ratio of retail trade employment growth spawned from population growth would emerge. Before the internet, the vast majority of all consumer sales occurred in the immediate community or region. But now, the internet is diverting these sales away from the local community — and with internet sales growing, its market share will increase.
We do not yet know how much brick-and-mortar erosion will eventually occur. And will such a phenomenon hit some areas more than others (e.g., urban vs. rural, or local vs. tourist spending)? These are touch points that economists will be watching as this internet sales phenomenon continues to grow within the national and Utah economies.
In light of this change, in this quarter’s Local Insights we are profiling retail trade employment throughout Utah’s local regions. This can offer a profile of where retail trade is now in a local economy, and possibly how much of the sector could become vulnerable to the internet-sales phenomenon.
All regions can be viewed through the Local Insights web portal. The following is a retail trade profile for the Eastern Region:
Non-store Taxable Sales Are Gaining, But Not as Fast as Employment. Why?
Taxable sales in non-store retail have not gained as a share of total taxable sales as quickly at the employment share has increased. This is primarily due to the fact that sales taxes are collected by the state of the purchaser, and then, only if the seller has a physical presence in that state. This means that when BackCountry.com sells a rug to someone outside of Utah, there is money coming into Utah (in terms of the jobs that the sale supports), but there is no sales tax coming in to Utah. The only non-store sales taxes captured in Utah are Utah consumers purchasing goods from retailers with a presence in Utah. Since large shares of sales by local online retailers are to customers in other states, it means that sales tax revenue lags compared to employment growth in the industry.
In order to explore the relationship between internet and brick-and-mortar retail we need to look at data grouped through the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) , which “is the standard used by federal statistical agencies in classifying business establishments.” Stated simply, NAICS groups businesses together based upon what they do.
Hierarchical in nature, NAICS begins with a broad categorization and narrows its focus through subsector levels. As an example, the educational services sector includes all institutions focused on providing instruction and training. At the subsector level, the focus narrows to elementary schools, colleges and trade institutions, etc.
The broad sector known as retail trade includes several underlying categories, such as motor vehicle sales, furniture stores, electronic stores, building material stores, grocery stores, pharmacies, gas stations, clothing stores and department stores, among others.
Then there is the relatively new and emerging part of the retail trade sphere — non-store retailers. These are establishments that sell products primarily on the internet or through direct selling. Examples include Amazon, Overstock.com, Young Living and dōTERRA. These types of retailers have grown rapidly in the past 15 years and their presence is reshaping the retail trade landscape. We will look at an illustration of this in a later section.
Internet sales have increased dramatically. Data from the Federal Reserve shows that internet sales are 8.5 percent of total retail sales as of January 2017. Nationally, retail’s 2016 share of employment is 11.2 percent. It is important to note that NAICS classifies businesses by what they do at a location, rather than by their business model. For example, the BackCountry.com location in West Valley City is classified under warehousing since that location is a warehouse.
Back to the East
In the Eastern Region (Carbon, Duchesne, Daggett, Emery, Grand, San Juan, and Uintah counties) retail trade is correlated with commodity prices because of the areas reliance on mining. When prices are high there is more discretionary income in the community, therefore more retail sales; and, correspondingly, retail establishments expand to meet demand. The reverse happens when commodity prices decline, slowing the economy and reducing discretionary income, therefore lowering retail sales and potentially retail employment.
The commodity-dependent industries can expand and shrink their employment in large quantities. When these industries’ employment increases, so then does retail trade employment. But commodity-dependent industries can grow so rapidly that their share of total employment also grows rapidly. Even though retail trade employment goes up, it does not grow as rapidly; and, therefore, retail’s share of total employment actually declines.
Retail sales in the Eastern Region also differ from the national archetype because of broadband internet usage. The Pew Research center estimates that there is a 10 percent “gap” in broadband access between urban and rural internet users. This impacts the ability of Eastern Region residents to purchase goods on-line and forces them to rely on “brick and mortar” stores.
The composition of the retail trade labor force in the Eastern Region is now different than for the state as a whole. Utah’s retail trade labor force has greyed significantly over the past 15 years. In 2001, 11 percent of the labor force was under 18 while 8 percent was older than 55. As of 2016, only 3 percent of the sector’s labor force was under 18 while 16 percent was over 55. Unlike the state as a whole, the age composition of the Eastern Region has remained unchanged from 2001; the share for workers under 18 was, and still is, 13 percent. The analogous figure for workers older than 55 is 26 percent.
Traditionally, “retail follows roof tops.” Retailers try hard not to oversaturate given an area’s population. It follows that the ratio of retail-employment-to-population should fall over time. Given internet competition, it takes more people to generate the same amount of retail sales. The state data seems to weakly support this hypothesis. The statewide share has fallen by 0.4 percentage points since 2001, hardly an indication of a “retail apocalypse.” Surprisingly, the share in the Eastern Region has fallen by 0.6 percentage points. Analysts speculate that the larger decline is influenced by incomes in the Eastern Region’s energy-based economy. Internet purchases are positively related to income, and energy economies have greater income than agricultural-based economies. Further, because of the internet, consumers in Vernal or Roosevelt has infinitely more choices than they did a decade ago.
Perhaps the state’s recent agreement with Amazon will be helpful in unraveling this puzzle. Amazon recently established a nexus with the state of Utah and therefore became obligated to collect Utah sales taxes. Amazon reportedly captured 33 percent of all U.S. online purchases in 2015, according to the magazine Internet Retailer, up from 25 percent in 2012. In response to this development, revenue estimators for Salt Lake County have added a half percentage point to their estimate for 2017 sales tax collections. It will be interesting to see how Amazon’s actions will impact the Eastern Region.