Rick Polito is editor-in-chief of Nutrition Business Journal, the data & insights branch of New Hope Network and a sister brand of Supermarket News.
As Americans winged through a summer of near normalcy promised by vaccinations, the return of COVID-19 in the highly transmissible delta variant has upended the trajectory and New Hope Network research suggests it could be time for retailers to pull the masks out of storage.
In surveys conducted a little more than two weeks apart, New Hope research shows consumers remarkably more likely to put the masks back on. In the first survey, fielded July 24, 39% of respondents said they “will definitely” don masks again when venturing into public indoor spaces. An Aug. 9 survey upped that percentage to 50%. Conversely, the percentage of people who said they “will probably not” wear masks in public indoor spaces dropped by half, falling to 6% from 12%.
Obviously, the situation is changing fast. The delta variant is causing “breakthrough” infections in vaccinated people and experts say the unvaccinated are becoming “sicker, quicker” than what was seen in earlier coronavirus strains. The delta variant is now the dominant strain in the United States. That has consumers concerned and how retailers react could be important. When consumers were asked which places should require masks, grocery stores matched indoor concerts and sporting events at 64% in the Aug. 9 survey, up notably from the July 24 responses.
A more detailed take on grocery store measures offers an intriguing proposition. Consumers who said they were more likely to shop at a store that either mandated masks or vaccination for employees profoundly outnumbered consumers who said such measures would make them less likely to shop there.
What retailers should do with this information is clear: more measures are becoming more important. Mask mandates, at least for employees, look like a no-brainer, and at least encouraging all consumers to wear masks, not just the unvaccinated, is at least worth considering. It’s also possible that consumers who want to wear masks feel awkward doing so if nobody else is masked. A higher ratio of masked-to-unmasked consumers would negate the odd-man-out dynamic and it’s likely that people who prefer shopping masked would be more likely to come back.
The other thing retailers need to do is keep a keen eye on the COVID-19 situation, nationally and not regionally. It may look like something that is happening in areas where vaccination rates are low, but according to a Aug. 12 Washington Post story, most Americans in highly vaccinated areas now live in COVID-19 hot spots. It’s no longer other people in other areas, no matter where your store is located.
Lastly, education remains an important factor. Changing policies on masks may require explaining those changes. The sign that goes on the front door could include brief language explaining the shifts.
The national sigh of relief may be evolving into a gasp, for now, but the truth that we are all in this together has never been more clear.
This article originally appeared on New Hope Network, a Supermarket News sister website.