Rolling for Initiative is a weekly column by Scott Thorne, PhD, owner of Castle Perilous Games & Books in Carbondale, Illinois and instructor in marketing at Southeast Missouri State University.  This week, Thorne offers thoughts on the current shortage of employees to fill retail sales positions.

Well, the game industry recently saw its best retail month ever (see "Rolling for Initiative -- Best Month Ever").  It would appear that putting $1,400 in the pocket of every American encourages them to go out and do one of the things that Americans do best, spend lots of money.  Retail sales jumped 9.8%, second best month on record, only eclipsed by last May’s jump of just over 18% (caused by the combination of the first epidemic induced lockdowns and arrival of the CARES act stimulus checks).  The sporting goods, clothing and food and beverage categories led the way with an increase of 18%, and most of last month’s sales increase was driven by brick-and-mortar stores, although Internet-only retailers saw a jump of about 6% as well. New jobless claims dropped to 576,000, a significant drop from last week’s jobless claims’ number of 769,000 and the lowest number of claims since March-April of 2020.  At the same time, there is a national labor shortage especially among what are thought of as blue collar and entry level jobs.  Trained plumbers and electricians have no problem finding work, but the problem for those trades is that the current labor force is aging out with no new employees training to replace them.

Meanwhile, a lot of retailers find themselves shorthanded as well.  Almost every business in our community has multiple "Help Wanted" signs up.  One of our local pizza restaurants said that due to the inability to higher enough staff, it offers current staff 10-20 hours of overtime a week and still has problems filling all of its available staffing hours.  In general, this labor shortage is due to one or a combination of three factors: increased unemployment benefits, health concerns, and need to remain at home to care for family or facilitate e-learning.

Increased Unemployment Benefits.  Here in Illinois, the maximum weekly unemployment benefit is $471 for a maximum of 26 weeks, which comes to $12,246 per benefits period.  Not princely, but enough to live.  The recently passed Covid relief bill, however, adds another $300 per week to those benefits, pushing the amount received to the equivalent of just over $40,000 per year, a decent cushion to have while job hunting and negating the imperative of taking a job immediately.  Conversely, there is also research indicating that the increase in unemployment benefits has had little effect on job hunting and employment rates.

Health Concerns.  Nationally, the U.S. is seeing an increase in the number of cases of COVID-19, primarily among younger workers as a greater percentage of older Americans have gotten vaccinated, reducing the likelihood of their infection.  Still, the infection is spreading and with only about a quarter of the U.S. population vaccinated, there are still a lot of people for it to infect.  Working, especially retail, means you come into contact with a lot of people and not all of them may have the same level of concern for their health.  For someone with health concerns, staying out of the workforce is one way to address that issue.

Caring for Family.  With so many schools closed during the last year due to COVID-19 concerns, most students have adopted remote learning, meaning they had to stay at home.  If they were at home, at least one parent had to stay at home as well.  Unless their employer could arrange for work at home, which is very hard to do in customer service jobs like retail, the parent who stayed at home had to quit their job and would find it very hard to take another one allowing them to work around their children’s needs.

Am I on the right track here?  Let me know at:

The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial staff of