With two shots of Pfizer in her arm, Bri Blair recently did something she hadn’t risked since before the pandemic: She went to the mall.
She met up with her mom at a shopping center near her home in North Carolina to try on clothes at Belk and Earthbound Trading Company, eat chicken and rice in the food court, and generally reimmerse herself in society. And though there were some notable differences compared with the Before Times — masked shoppers, hand sanitizer stations, plastic bags covering the water fountains — she says she was surprised by how many other people were there.
After more than a year of quarantining and social distancing, being out in such a public space was a strange experience.
“I felt like I was hyperaware of everyone, for sure,” Blair says. Still, that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing: She looked people in the eyes, took advantage of the dressing rooms, and appreciated the novelty of the store environment. “I was pretty immersed in the experience,” she added.
With nearly 40 percent of Americans fully vaccinated — a share that is ticking up by the day — and most states easing pandemic restrictions and planning full reopenings, shoppers are slowly emerging from behind their screens and returning to stores. And even as some retail workers are hesitant to come back to (or continue with) what has been an especially grueling job this year, companies are also working on a host of changes that may one day make their jobs obsolete.
US retail sales jumped 10.7 percent in March as a third round of stimulus checks padded consumers’ pockets, according to the US Department of Commerce. Apparel sales more than doubled over the same month last year, while sales at department stores rose 13 percent above their February levels. In April, sales were flat as the stimulus bump receded, though economists point to the sustained improvement over 2020’s dismal figures — and Americans’ increasing comfort with indoor activities — as reasons for hope.
“What we’ve seen in the latest data is that when provided with the ability and the possibility of spending in a safe way, consumers have the means and the desire to do so,” says Gregory Daco, chief US economist at Oxford Economics.
Already, the spending surge has contributed to rising prices in some categories, especially those where the demand for goods has most outstripped the supply of inputs, Daco says. Currently, inflation is hitting sectors such as tech and home building, which have been impacted by shortages in semiconductors and lumber alongside skyrocketing demand. As new parts of the economy reopen, though, Daco expects prices to adjust accordingly, with inflation shifting from goods to services such as flights, hotel rooms, and sporting events. (Though, as other experts have admitted, it’s impossible to say exactly what the economy will do in the pandemic’s aftermath.)
“Inflation at this stage of the recovery is almost unavoidable … but that does not mean that it’s uncontrollable,” he says, explaining it will take time for spending patterns to normalize and for supply to catch up to demand.
While foot traffic in stores hasn’t caught up to pre-pandemic highs, the country’s best malls are seeing improvement. Among a sample of 52 Class A malls, foot traffic in April was down just 18.7 percent from 2019 levels, analytics company Placer.ai told Vox in an interview. That was a marked gain even from March, when traffic was off by 23.7 percent.
With new cases of Covid-19 on the decline across most of the country and plans for weddings, concerts, and vacations on the horizon again, retailers anticipate a spending boom. After all, as ads for beer and shapewear now suggest, what better way to get “back to normal” than to buy new stuff?
But just because vaccinated Americans can safely shop like they used to doesn’t mean all of them will. Some have moved to the suburbs and now frequent strip malls instead of street-level boutiques; others have changed jobs and routines. Some won’t be going back to the office every day, so they’re less likely to buy a new dress shirt or pop into the downtown shops after work. Many have also grown accustomed to the ease of curbside pickup and now expect their trips to the store to be as quick and convenient as checking out online.
Even though e-commerce accounts for only about 14 percent of consumer spending in the US today, according to the Census Bureau, it may still be an existential threat to tens of thousands of existing stores. A recent UBS report forecasts 80,000 retail store closures, representing 9 percent of the country’s total retail footprint, by 2026. The report suggests more stores will close as Americans do more of their shopping online — a trend UBS says has only been exacerbated by the pandemic.
Back in February, as many as one in four US consumers said they no longer enjoyed the in-person shopping experience and didn’t feel safe shopping in stores, according to a global IBM survey.
Karl Haller, a partner at IBM Global Business Services, expects these concerns to flag, though, so long as local public health outlooks continue to improve. “As people are getting vaccinated and as restrictions are getting relaxed, safety will probably slowly migrate down in terms of its active importance in the minds of consumers, unless or until there is an outbreak of some sort,” Haller says.
While conspicuous Lysoling, mandatory hand sanitizer stations, and UV disinfection robots roaming the aisles — which the Atlantic’s Derek Thompson called “hygiene theater” — may assuage some customers’ aversion to germs, they don’t necessarily make for an enjoyable shopping experience. Do you really want to be reminded of the looming threat of plague when you’re trying to buy face cream?
A more subtle shift that could outlast the pandemic is more spacious store layouts, says MJ Munsell, chief creative officer at architecture design and strategy firm MG2. In the past 20 or so years, fixture spacing has tightened to accommodate more and more merchandise, she says. And while the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 sets some requirements for retailers — aisles must be at least 3 feet wide, for example — social distancing has awakened many companies to the value of a little extra breathing room.
“[Retailers] are realizing that it is a customer amenity to provide more space, to not feel crowded, to not feel like you’re going to bump into someone else when you’re shopping deeper into a store,” Munsell says.
Grocery chains and garden centers now tout their “massive aisles” alongside their low prices and merchandise selections. Contactless checkout sections are also here to stay, with Walmart rolling out its self-checkout kiosks in 1,000 additional stores this year. The country’s largest retailer is even testing a new format that would eliminate cashier-staffed checkouts entirely.
Retailers that added or expanded their fulfillment options — among them curbside pickup; buy online, pick up in-store; and ship-from-store — during the pandemic are now finding that they have to more seamlessly integrate those processes into their store designs.
Grocery giant Publix, for instance, recently debuted a new store format that includes a permanent online order hub, pharmacy drive-through, and designated parking spots for grocery pickup. The head of store operations at Ulta Beauty, meanwhile, told Morning Brew that it is renegotiating some store leases to include parking spots for curbside pickup.
Convenience is just one feature that retailers are ramping up. Many are also recognizing that people need a good reason to shop in-store when the same products can be found quickly and easily online.
“There can no longer be what I would call a Field of Dreams mindset when thinking about stores. It is not a ‘build it and they will come’ philosophy,” says Haller.
At the arts-and-crafts chain Michaels, new concept stores will include “maker spaces” with free supplies, classes, and crafting tutorials. Dick’s Sporting Goods, meanwhile, opened its first House of Sport megastore in April, featuring an indoor rock-climbing wall, batting cage, golf driving bays, and outdoor track and field that will be converted into a skating rink during the winter.
Lindsay Binette, director of field marketing at WS Development, says foot traffic is almost back at pre-pandemic levels at most of the company’s properties, which include the Boston Seaport and Tampa Bay’s Hyde Park Village. The Instagram-friendly ear-piercing studio Studs opened this month at The Current, the Seaport’s pop-up village, while Tampa customers are flocking back to the custom candlemaking shop The Candle Pour.
“People are really looking for more of that sense of discovery that you can experience in-store that you can’t experience when you’re online,” says Binette.
While retailers were already making more efforts to tailor each of their stores to the unique tastes and demographics of local markets prior to the pandemic, that task became especially urgent in a year when people rarely ventured far from their homes.
Nike is betting on this strategy with its Nike Live stores, which leverage data about customers’ buying patterns and engagement to “provide the ultimate localized brick-and-mortar shopping experience.” To that end, shoppers visiting the Nike Live boutique in Tokyo will have an experience very different from those visiting the store in Atlanta.
“It’s no longer a rubber stamp from store to store. You’re starting to see a real different mix based on the patterns of purchase that are happening in a particular community, and that’s really going to help make brands more relevant,” says Lara Marrero, strategy director and retail practice leader at Gensler, a global design and architecture firm.
If all retailers could be more like Nike, perhaps the outlook for America’s malls and brick-and-mortar stores would be brighter, but as it is, most experts predict that the glut of mediocre retail is unlikely to survive for long. Last year, a record 12,200 stores closed in the US, according to an analysis by the commercial real estate firm CoStar Group. About a third of them were department stores, clothing chains, and other mall-based properties. Department stores have an especially challenging road ahead: Only 1,600 mall-based locations remain in the US — down about 40 percent since 2016 — and half of them are expected to be shuttered by the end of 2025, according to Green Street Advisors.
Matt Anthony has seen what happens when a department store closes up shop. The Akron, Ohio, resident saw the writing on the wall when Macy’s left his local mall in 2016, and again when Sears and J.C. Penney followed suit soon thereafter. Last year, with no anchor stores remaining, the mall entered foreclosure proceedings, and just recently the property was bought by a developer who plans to turn it into a business park.
Anthony had witnessed this kind of decline a decade prior at the mall across town, which lost Dillard’s, Target, and Macy’s before shuttering in 2008. The property sat mostly vacant for years, earning its place in the annals of dead malls thanks to photos of its snow-covered atrium, the skylights caved in from neglect. Today, though, the site of the former mall is once again bustling with activity: On November 1, 2020, Amazon opened a distribution center where it once stood.
Akron has one remaining (and, fortunately, far more successful) mall, and Anthony and his wife recently drove there on a Friday night to run errands and enjoy a social experience after so many months hunkered down at home.
“It felt really good to be out among people again,” he says. “Just being able to meander and wander, given the fact that we’ve just spent the past year or more not being able to be near other people, was to me really refreshing.”
Going to Summit Mall was like “walking back in time to 20 years ago,” he says. The parking lot was full, Macy’s was open for business, and people seemed to be happy to be there. While he expects it will be a luxury one day to be able to, say, walk into a camera shop to ask a question rather than firing up a chat window with a faceless customer service person online, his trip to the mall that night reminded him that there are certain aspects of the brick-and-mortar experience that can’t be replaced online.
“It kind of harkens back to what it once was,” he says. “I wish we would have appreciated it a little earlier in the process before we gave our life over to Jeff Bezos.”