This is the Coronavirus Case Studies series. Each post in this series will talk about how the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 will affect different businesses for years to come. We’re all still processing this massive, life-changing event. This week, we talk about how coronavirus will affect the retail industry. 

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Retail sales bring in A LOT of revenue annually. “Total retail sales increased 3.8% in 2019 to $3.763 trillion. [It was] $3.626 trillion the year before, according to Digital Commerce estimates using Commerce Department figures.”

With COVID cases climbing all the way through the year, the retail industry has been forced to change the way they approach in-person shopping. The alternative? Closure.

What is the Retail Industry?

First, let’s start with a clear definition of what retailing means.

Retail is the process of selling consumer goods or services to customers through multiple channels of distribution to earn a profit. Retailers satisfy demand identified through a supply chain.

The term “retailer” is typically applied where a service provider fills the small orders of many individuals, who are end-users, rather than large orders of a small number of wholesale, corporate or government clientele.

Shopping generally refers to the act of buying products. Sometimes this is done to obtain final goods, including necessities such as food and clothing; sometimes it takes place as a recreational activity. Recreational shopping often involves window shopping and browsing: it does not always result in a purchase.

Wikipedia on Retail

As you can see from the above, retail is really more of a business model than an industry. Many industries that use the retail model are changing because of COVID-19: food, clothing, and other common household goods.

Because of the pandemic, many customers are uncomfortable going into public. Some customers choose to take precautions like wearing masks, and indeed, some retailers require them to do so. Social distancing guidelines are also similarly important. Still, the majority of US consumers still feel uncomfortable about conducting day-to-day activities right now.

This isn’t just an abstract idea either. I have personally seen mask mandates, social distancing guidelines, and sparsely populated stores all over town. This includes my local grocery store, to shops around town, and in the mall. This year more than ever, we are seeing major changes in how our society functions. 

We’re finding out in real-time how the pandemic will affect retail. Only once the history books are written will we know what coronavirus means for the retail industry. In the meantime, I have three predictions to offer.

3 Predictions for the Retail Industry

1. Face masks are here to stay.

According to, well, every major reputable site out there, face masks work to stop the spread of COVID-19. For the sake of this post, let’s just quote directly from the World Health Organization.

If COVID-19 is spreading in your community, stay safe by taking some simple precautions, such as physical distancing, wearing a mask, keeping rooms well ventilated, avoiding crowds, cleaning your hands, and coughing into a bent elbow or tissue. Check local advice where you live and work. Do it all!

Make wearing a mask a normal part of being around other people.

Masks should be used as part of a comprehensive strategy of measures to suppress transmission and save lives; the use of a mask alone is not sufficient to provide an adequate level of protection against COVID-19.

World Health Organization guidelines.

That’s about as unambiguous as you get. It’s critical for retail, too.

Whether you’re going to the grocery store, the mall, or the gas station, you can expect to see people wearing face masks. If you’re not wearing one, there’s a good chance someone will ask you to. This is going to last for a while, possibly until we see a successful vaccine and have time to administer it widely.

2. A continued increase in eCommerce sales.

Due to the spread of COVID-19, expect to see a surge in eCommerce sales.

As the COVID-19 pandemic reshapes our world, more consumers have begun shopping online in greater numbers and frequency. According to new data from IBM’s U.S. Retail Index, the pandemic has accelerated the shift away from physical stores to digital shopping by roughly five years. Department stores, as a result, are seeing significant declines. In the first quarter of 2020, department store sales and those from other “non-essential” retailers declined by 25%. This grew to a 75% decline in the second quarter.

The report indicates that department stores are expected to decline by over 60% for the full year. Meanwhile, e-commerce is projected to grow by nearly 20% in 2020.

The World Economic Forum

This is a huge year for eCommerce, and I believe that it is just the beginning of the shift to online buying. Digital Commerce ran a piece with the headline “US ecommerce sales soar a record 44.4% in Q2 as pandemic sends shoppers online.” Statista corroborated their findings with a spike in eCommerce demand that you have to see to believe.

Retail isn’t going to fade…it may just go online!

3. Limited entry shopping for brick and mortar stores.

Have you gone into a Walmart lately? What about your mall? Outside of dozens of stores, I see people counting the number of people entering a building.

In fact, at our local mall, I have seen people waiting in line to just go to the Vans store or even Hot Topic. This is largely due to stores trying to limit the number of people entering a store at one time in an attempt to adhere to social distancing guidelines.

I don’t see this changing as long as the pandemic continues. By limiting the number of people in a store at any given time, retailers can minimize the risk of transmission of COVID-19. Besides, the really smart ones are using this to their advantage with service offerings like curbside pickup.

Final Thoughts

The Coronavirus has affected almost all of us. With industries having to adapt to the current reality, it has left us feeling very uncertain of what is to come. Regardless of the changes that happen in the following months, we will keep moving forward. As dark as the times seem right now, life will get better. If nothing else, we will find ways to innovate with hard-won knowledge.

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