What will be retail’s new normal if social distancing stays in place until 2022?

Photo: Walmart
Apr 16, 2020
George Anderson

Nearly 637,000 people in the U.S. have contracted COVID-19 to date and more than 28,000 have died. Every state in the nation and all its territories have had cases reported, and there are likely many others still unknown due to a lack of comprehensive testing.

Even as governors in some states that have issued stay-at-home and strict social distancing orders are feeling more confident that these measures have them close to the top of their respective disease curves, medical experts warn that reopening the economy and relaxing these measures prematurely could bring another wave of cases, threatening already scarce human and physical resources to fight the virus.

The pandemic’s impact on U.S. retailing has been profound. Industry sales fell a record 8.7 percent last month, more than double the previous record during the Great Recession, based on Commerce Department figures. Many experts expect the decline in April to be even steeper as many retailers closed stores near the end of March.

Despite a widespread consensus in medical circles that a conservative approach is called for, there are elements of the political and business class lobbying states to quickly lift restrictions and “reopen the economy,” as President Trump has said. In a press conference on Tuesday, Mr. Trump said that some governors “will be in really good shape to open up even sooner” than May 1.

As discussions go on about the timing and scope of a reopening, a new paper from Harvard’s school of public health published in the journal Science sees a scenario whereby “prolonged or intermittent social distancing may be necessary into 2022.”

The researchers came to the conclusion based on several factors, including the likely behavior of COVID-19 based on how other related viruses have acted in the past. One takeaway is that, while the heat of the summer months in the U.S. may slow the spread of COVID-19, it is unlikely to vanquish it. Large numbers of people who have either not been exposed to the virus and are not immune to the virus and a lack of a vaccine against the disease could provide fertile ground for further spread in the fall. Looked at seasonally, the researchers concluded that the virus hits “lower peaks” in the winter/spring and “more acute outbreaks” in autumn/winter.

The study, which considered dozens of potential scenarios for the virus, concludes that sans a vaccine, “several rounds” of distancing will be required before the U.S. reaches a state of herd immunity.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: To whom should retail leaders look to determine the right time to go back to business-as-usual — or something approximating it? What changes do you expect across retail verticals in the U.S. if “prolonged or intermittent social distancing” is necessary for an extended period of time?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"I truly have no place in my head or heart to absorb the concept that people should die so the economy will live. I mean, nowhere. And no words to express what it feels like."
"Small businesses are crippled and employees are afraid they may never get back to work. Safeguards yes but again but more doom and gloom helps no one."
"The good news for us that I would rather be in retailing than attempting to fill theaters, stadiums, cruise ships and airplanes full of people..."

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31 Comments on "What will be retail’s new normal if social distancing stays in place until 2022?"

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Michael La Kier

At this point, it’s hard to imagine we can return to the way things were before COVID-19 came on to the scene. Regardless of when restrictions will be lifted, many of the social distancing measures put in place will likely be required longer term: 6-foot separation for lines, reduced number of shoppers allowed at stores, more room between diners, and contactless payments.

Paula Rosenblum

I truly have no place in my head or heart to absorb the concept that people should die so the economy will live. I mean, nowhere. And no words to express what it feels like.

Epidemiologists are the best judges, and I’m sure they can use forecasts and curves to figure out where and how stores can reopen.

I think it’s fair to say that malls are dead until a vaccine shows up. Too hard to control.

Gene Detroyer

Your opening sentence moved me to tears.

Paula Rosenblum

I meant it. How far have we fallen??

Bob Amster

Generals in wartime have to make those difficult decisions. The pandemic has been referred to by some people as “a war.” If that were correct, some would argue that the economy is more important and some lives will be lost (as in war) to achieve victory. Who wants to make that decision today?

Dick Seesel

I’m less concerned about 2022, by which time we can hope for a vaccine and a treatment. I’m more concerned about the summer and fall of 2020, and how all sorts of businesses balance the need for public safety with the need to conduct business. General merchandisers like department stores will need to put protocols into place — everything from plexiglass sneeze bars to one-way directional signing to limits on store traffic and use of masks — before they open their doors, or consumers will stay away in droves. Likewise, bars and restaurants will need to rethink how they conduct business until there is reason for optimism on the medical front. There are plenty of good examples being set right now by grocers and discounters, that the rest of the retail world can learn from.

Ken Morris

Retail leaders need to look outside of Washington for guidance on when to go back to business as usual. States, cities and health professional will guide us. The end of social distancing will be when we have a vaccine in place and we are looking at 12 to 18 months before things return to what I refer to as the new normal. Masks and gloves will be with us forever I fear. I see Chief Health Officers (CHOs) in our future along with dark stores and ghost kitchens. If we can afford in-house attorneys I’m sure we can add an MD to our C-suite.

Jeff Sward

The rebound of cases in China, Hong Kong and now Singapore tells us that any relaxing of “social distancing” standards comes with a now predictable result — a bounce in the frequency of coronavirus cases. So while there will be enormous economic pressure to open things up again, there will also be enormous medical pressure to live a cautious life. Sure, it will vary by region, business and demographics, but nothing resembling “old normal” is on the horizon anytime soon. “Vaccine” becomes the watershed event. Pre-vaccine and post-vaccine. Buckle in.

Richard Hernandez

I really think social distancing will be in place as a new normal or at least until we find a vaccine that works and it is widely distributed across the country. As the country begins to open up, social distancing has to be in place and non-essential businesses will have to have a plan in place if and when they reopen.

David Naumann
David Naumann
Marketing Strategy Lead - Retail, Travel & Distribution, Verizon
1 year 19 days ago

Social distancing and bans on large gatherings will likely remain a reality for the remainder of 2020. That does not mean the end of physical retail. As demonstrated by grocery stores and other essential business, that will mean new practices to ensure the safety of employees and customers. I am still surprised that grocery stores are not requiring employees to wear face coverings and gloves.

As evidenced by recent mandates by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo for New Yorkers to wear face coverings when social distancing is not possible, including on public transport, in-stores and on crowded sidewalks, wearing face coverings in stores and public places will be a reality.

Art Suriano
When to open, what to open first and how to have customers and employees engage with one another are tough questions, and no one has the right answer. We are dealing with entirely uncharted waters, and guessing is not the solution. We have three problems today: 1.) The Pandemic, which is real; people have gotten and continue to get the virus, and we have had around 30,000 deaths to date in our nation. 2.) The media is more interested in reporting everything and anything negative with most headlines using words such as “could,” “might,” “may,” and so on, meaning that this information is not based on fact but opinion. And 3.) there are too much politics involved. If the Republicans have a suggestion, the Democrats disagree, and if the Democrats have a recommendation, the Republicans oppose it. For these reasons, social distancing is not going to end easily and for most states, probably not quickly. I expect to see much debate, and I am concerned about the outcome. However, each day businesses are dying, and… Read more »
Michael Terpkosh

Retail leaders need to look to their state government and health officials for direction. For most of the United States this has worked to try to control the virus. Business-as-usual may not exist for months to come. I expect that retail verticals will want/need to take additional precautions or will be required to take additional precautions. We saw in China retailers taking the temperature of every customer before they entered the store. I believe retail will get back to opening stores, but with limits to the number of customers in stores or you need to make a reservation for a time to shop. It just won’t be business-as-usual, but business will be conducted.

Shep Hyken

Regardless of the pressure to open, let’s get this right before we make a mistake and have to relive another quarantine and non-essential business shut-down. There may be ways to get retail up and running again, but we may not be able to get back to where we were just before the pandemic for some time. For example, restrictions on number of people allowed into a store may become a new, and hopefully temporary rule/law. I’m for getting businesses of all kinds back as quickly as possible, so let’s be conservatively safe. Otherwise, we will be at risk of having to go through “this” all over again.

Cathy Hotka

The Store Operations Council is working on a document outlining actions that retailers can take to keep their associates and customers safe after businesses slowly reopen. It’s due in mid-May. One inescapable conclusion: the new normal won’t look like the old normal.

Neil Saunders

I am sure that, at some point this year, stores will reopen. Our scientists will be able to advise on when the time is right. However, the idea that things will go back to how they were before is a non-starter. Limits on how many people can enter a store, physical distancing in lines for the register, better protections for staff, and a reduction in covers at foodservice outlets are all likely. On top of that, you’ll have large numbers of people who voluntarily want to limit their visits to shops. All of this points to a subdued retail economy. We all wish it wasn’t so, but we need to deal with the reality before us.

Bob Phibbs

It is a balance. We have to get the economy going again and I’m probably one of the most progressive people you will find. Small businesses are crippled and employees are afraid they may never get back to work. Safeguards yes but again but more doom and gloom helps no one. People who rely on selling to make a living need the ability to do it completely, not just online. Yes social distancing is important but we cannot go for a zero-sum game here if we ever want to crawl out of the mess that is engulfing us. China is 90 days behind us and their department stores, malls, and restaurants are open. Hermes boutique had its biggest day ever last Saturday. Please have some balance in perspective.

Gene Detroyer

let’s look at the curves. At the very begging of the curves, before the astounding run-up of cases to bring us to the apex (at least in NYC), it started with one, two, five cases. So even if the trend of new cases starts to drop, at which point do you undo the actions that brought us to the plateau? When it is only 50 percent, 25 percent, 10 percent?

Here is what we know we know. The U.S. has about 650,000 cases, about 30,000 deaths and about 30,000 new cases yesterday. These numbers were generated from a handful of cases at the beginning.

I believe we don’t throw out the precautions that we are taking now until we have tools (tests and vaccine) to assure that one case won’t again lead to 650,000 with 30,000 deaths.

Liz Crawford

The protests in Ohio, Michigan, and Kentucky do not bode well for enforcing social distancing measures in retail, as we move forward. I think the question is – what will the patchwork of retail look like? What will be the impact on pandemic suppression?

Non-compliance will likely foster eruptions of regional outbreaks for years to come.

Tony Orlando
If this is the way it is going to be, prepare for a depression, as this protocol is going to keep us in a deep freeze forever. When you lose your savings, and have nothing to take care of your family, I cringe at the thought of how the American people will react to the new normal. The government can print money to pass out to the many millions of out of work people, and it will take a wheelbarrow of money to buy basic staples, as inflation will spike big time. Living in fear of this virus, and cancelling damn near everything will destroy our way of life, and unless we all live in a bubble suit, some people who are sick will die, in spite of our government quarantine. This is not meant to alarm anyone, and yes keeping a distance for the time being is fine. I have my first grandchild coming soon, and have no intentions of acting in a way that would harm him or anyone else, but this can… Read more »
Rich Kizer

I want yesterday back. I want my favorite stores and malls open. I want to sit at the coffee shop with my friends and so much more. BUT — I’m willing to wait, so as not to cost lives.

Lisa Goller

Haste can harm humans and businesses alike. To protect consumers and employees, retail leaders – even staunch competitors – should agree to work together to honor a methodical, phased approach to restoring the retail industry.

Working with proven public health and safety experts, including physicians, will help retail leaders draft reasonable timelines based on clinical evidence. Key metrics that healthcare leaders monitor as signals for improvements include consecutive declines in hospitalizations for and deaths from COVID-19 and increased herd immunity rates.

If physical distancing continues, we can expect to see even more:

  • E-commerce adoption;
  • Long lineups winding around store perimeters;
  • One-way directional flow in heavy-traffic aisles like grocery;
  • Aggressive promotion among non-essential retailers and DTC brands to stay on consumers’ radars;
  • Demand for on-site security providers to count brick-and-mortar crowds and manage in-store traffic.
Peter Charness

I wish there were a clever answer out there and an “aha” moment on what to do, but I dont think there is. I’m afraid that until we get a viable treatment and a vaccine we are going to be playing “whack a mole” across the U.S. (and the world) with new bubbles of outbreaks happening all the time, and no relaxation of fear. With no coordinated action happening centrally, and as others have pointed out no unified political leadership, social distancing and limiting activities that involve “crowds” is all that any individual can do to protect themselves and take some measure of control over their lives. I suspect keeping distance is what people will do, particularly as you go up the age curve. So is this the new normal? I’m afraid so.

Brandon Rael

What we are experiencing is unprecedented, and the rules of engagement for now and the foreseeable future are literally being rewritten by the day as we learn more about COVID-19. The economy has certainly been significantly impacted, however, reopening businesses and schools will take a scientific, pragmatic and highly coordinated approach, as social distancing and the need to wear PPE will become the norm.

The short answer is that we don’t know what the new normal will be for not only retail but for all aspects of life. Regardless of what form retail returns to, consumers are focusing on survival needs, keeping their families safe, preserving their money due to unemployment or furloughs, and there simply will be very limited discretionary spending throughout 2020.

Phil Rubin
1 year 19 days ago

Michael is right in that returning to BAU is not going to happen anytime soon. There are three places leaders need to look for guidance on moving towards the “next” normal. First is obviously state and local governments in order to be “legal.” Second is employees, as if they do not feel safe neither will customers. Last, but not least(!) is customers. Two out of three will not work.

Ananda Chakravarty

Retail will change as everything does to adapt whether through more adoption of BOPIS and online or opening of select stores in regions less affected. Regardless, we’ll still eventually have a need to purchase new footwear, a new pair of jeans, or definitely new underwear as they wear out.

We’ll also want to have our luxury items and entertainment that will find their own ways of enabling selling, including in-store engagement and drive throughs.

Survivability will require creativity and new ways of engagement, some of which are not yet evident in the market. The decisions around this will need to be thought out — and I can’t see sacrificing lives to bring in money. We are the richest country in the world. We should be able to tackle the virus as well as enabling the economy, and a good leadership team will do both.