As the global pandemic rocked the globe, shelter-in-place, lockdown guidelines, and retail mask mandates forced many Americans to alter their buying habits. Retail, among many other industries, faced repercussions from reluctant Americans toning down their in-person shopping. Throughout 2020, retail traffic plummeted while the industry remained agile and innovative, pivoting quickly into BOPIS and eCommerce. U.S. retail sales in 2020 dropped to 4.89 trillion USD, compared to 5.47 trillion the year prior. While this shift in spending habits appears temporary, research and data show that these methods may remain prevalent in the near future with wary consumers hesitant to shop mask-less in-store until the pandemic has fully subsided.
The Shift in Retail Spending Due to COVID-19
The most frequently used alternative for many Americans became Buy Online, Pick Up In-Store (BOPIS). The share of consumers intending to shop in-person at grocery stores in the United States from February to April 2021 dropped from 32% to 21%, and a recent survey found that grocery delivery and pick-up in the United States from April to May 2021 dropped from $6.6 billion to $5.3 billion. Comparing this data to outbreaks and infection rate in the U.S., the two trends go hand-in-hand: as infection rate spikes, so does grocery delivery and pick-up. Therefore, there is a strong possibility that Americans are eager to return to in-store retail, allowing for a rise in offline sales. However, there is also a chance that Americans are unprepared and wary of returning to this new normal with the future of COVID and the Delta variant still uncertain. Retailers need to remain aware of shopper sentiment and prepare to integrate both in-person and online retail methods for consumers if they haven’t already.
The Current State of Retail Mask Mandates
As of May 13, 2021, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) officially lifted its mask mandate for fully vaccinated individuals. However, on July 27, 2021, the CDC updated its mask mandate once again, requiring vaccinated individuals to wear masks when in areas of high transmission to over contracting the Delta variant. When considering how to manage post-COVID retail, businesses must react based on differing guidelines state-by-state. While most states across the U.S. have fully reopened, there are still a number of states maintaining mask mandates and other safety precautions.
Listed below are some of the remaining mask mandates along with the states containing said restrictions as of July 14, 2021:
- Masks are still required in all public indoor spaces in Hawaii.
- Masks are still required for unvaccinated individuals over the age of 2-5 in indoor public spaces in California, Kansas, New Mexico, and Washington.
- Masks are still required for unvaccinated individuals over the age of 2 in public spaces where social distancing is not possible in Connecticut, D.C., New York, and Vermont.
Each retail store possesses the freedom to create its own mask requirement, yet there is limited ability to monitor vaccination status. As of late May 2021, the U.S. had administered only 279,397,250 total doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. This creates a dilemma for those in the retail industry; What guidelines should be put in place? How should retailers monitor vaccinated individuals? There are hopeful solutions to combat these in-store difficulties that meet shopper expectations while protecting employees.
A large number of grocery stores across the U.S. eased up on their mask requirements following the CDC’s latest mandate. Specifically, Costco, Kroger and Trader Joe’s are just a few of the grocers that no longer require face coverings for vaccinated customers while continuing to encourage certain protocols. Numerous retailers, such as Target, maintain in-store traffic while encouraging vaccinations and masks among their shoppers with signs posted throughout the store. Various apparel stores have taken different approaches to retail mask mandates, especially when considering state guidelines. Gap, for example, encourages but does not require masks for non-vaccinated shoppers (unless required by state law), and requires masks for non-vaccinated employees. Nordstrom requires masks for non-vaccinated employees and shoppers alike, while Macy’s recommends but does not require masks among vaccinated shoppers and bases their employee policy on state guidelines. Some luxury retailers, for instance Gucci, also continue to require face covering in-store for all employees, as well as non-vaccinated shoppers.
A 2020 survey found that 41% of respondents had a negative opinion of those not complying with retail mask mandates, although research has yet to prove how or whether this number has shifted by 2021. As seen during the pandemic’s peaks, there is a strong possibility that in-store sales decrease as online sales rise until the pandemic fully subsides. Americans who are apprehensive about stepping out in a mask-less world or interacting with unvaccinated individuals may turn their gaze back to online retail. This is an opportunity that retailers who have invested in eCommerce and other digital shopping experiences can capitalize on.
Mask mandates continue to evolve as our understanding of COVID and it’s varying strains evolve, as made evident by the CDC’s recent recommendation for vaccinated individuals to wear masks in high-traffic areas. Regardless of the changes in mask mandate policies, retailers must be prepared to create an environment where shoppers feel safe and comfortable.
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Contributions by Rachel Ruth