The workers bearing the brunt of retail’s struggles? Primarily women and people of color.

In retail, few people have gone unscathed by the upheaval that’s battered the industry over the past decade. The rise of online shopping, changing consumer tastes, massive debt burdens weighing on retailers’ balance sheets, and increasing automation have resulted in bankruptcies, layoffs, reduced pay, and lost severance. The people hit hardest? Women and people of…

The workers bearing the brunt of retail’s struggles? Primarily women and people of color.

In retail, few people have gone unscathed by the upheaval that’s battered the industry over the past decade. The rise of online shopping, changing consumer tastes, massive debt burdens weighing on retailers’ balance sheets, and increasing automation have resulted in bankruptcies, layoffs, reduced pay, and lost severance. The people hit hardest? Women and people of color, groups that make up the majority of retail’s lowest-paid workforce.
According to a study released this week, one factor in particular has been responsible for the loss of 600,000 retail jobs, plus another 728,000 in related industries: private equity ownership. Ten of the 14 largest retail bankruptcies since 2012 — Payless ShoeSource, Toys R Us, and Claire’s among them — have been at companies saddled with debt due to leveraged buyouts by private equity firms.
The massive scale of job losses is particularly striking given the industry’s overall growth; retail had added more than a million jobs in the past decade as the economy has recovered from the recession. It’s also expected to continue growing even as automation eats away at the lowest tier of workers: While the number of cashiers is projected to decline by 2026, retail employment overall is expected to swell to 16.2 million jobs (up from 15.8 million in 2016), according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
These private equity deals were common beginning in the years leading up to the financial crisis: Firms like Sycamore Partners and Bain Capital raised billions in order to buy — and, they said, turn around — retail businesses from Neiman Marcus to Wet Seal. In many cases, though, critics say the arrangements left retailers so cash-strapped that they couldn’t invest in store improvements or hiring new employees, making them even less competitive in an increasingly challenging sector.
Presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren introduced legislation last week targeting the business model; in a post on Medium, she called some of private equity’s most lucrative practices “legalized looting — looting that makes a handful of Wall S
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