A return to normalcy is dubious

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The Long Hot Summer is upon us. Or perhaps it will turn out to be the Winter of our Discontent. Either way, there are some difficult days ahead — and mass retailing, perhaps more critically than any other segment of the U.S. economy, will just have to rise to the occasion.

That’s hardly an easy proposition. July and August are two of the densely packed shopping months of the year. Not only do Americans go to the seashore and the mountains. Not only do they vacation. Not only do they take time off. Americans also spend the summer months at the retail emporiums — more specifically at the food, drug and mass merchants that occupy our time and keep many of us off the streets — that constitute the majority of our weekly exertions.

The question that must be asked, yet again: Is the mass retailing community ready to meet the challenge? Will the nation’s mass retailers address the coming horde of shoppers as they have in past summers, with adequate merchandise, attentive staffers, appropriate seasonal events and competitive prices? Finally, will the United States, as a nation, be ready, willing and able to reopen its retail marketplace in time to accommodate the pent-up enthusiasm of consumers who have been repeatedly denied their requests, even demands, to be allowed to return to one of their favorite occupations: shopping?

Initial evidence puts this return to normalcy much in doubt. For several reasons. First, the mass retailing community will be smaller this summer than it has been in many, many years. Some retailers have already gone out of business. Others, insisting they will be ready to open, have raised skepticism among their competitors, their suppliers, and their once and future customers.

Even it most of America’s mass retailers return to business as usual, one wonders what they will have to sell. Meat, the backbone of the American diet, is problematical, faced even now with acute product shortages. Many of the other staples that have traditionally formed the heart of the American meal are in short supply as well. Days and hours of operation will surely be curtailed. And staffers who have excelled at standing up to the current pandemic will be hard-pressed to return to business as usual — even if they are able to recall those seemingly distant days when the phrase “business as usual” meant just that.

The key question here is not whether but when. Despite the agonizingly slow process this nation is making in its attempts to cope with and ultimately defeat this coronavirus, it is apparent that some progress has been made. Villages, communities, cities, states and regions are already coming back to life. Our citizenry has managed to cope with life in the absence of restaurants, of movie theaters, of sporting events, of outdoor activities, of forms of social behavior we once took for granted, once accepted as the norm for today and all the tomorrows to come. So, yes, progress has been made.

Then the question that emerges, that begs to be heard when it pertains to the retailing community, is this one: How does this community regroup, move smoothly from a time of shortage and unprecedented hardship to something resembling business as usual?

The question is almost as difficult to address as the answer. We all acknowledge that, if mass retailing has been saved, or at least given a chance to regroup, it is the online employees, the hourly workers, the nine-to-fivers that have rescued the retailing community. The next part, the really hard part, now falls to the people for whom they work, the supervisors, the bosses, the assistant vice presidents, the leaders, the people who brought this wonderful segment of the U.S. business world to the pinnacle it enjoys today.

One would want to believe that, even now, these retailing leaders are meeting behind their office doors to plan a future that, in whatever form it emerges, is only moments away. That’s the belief, the hope, the yearning.

Reality, however, may be an entirely different thing, with an entirely different, if far less desirable ending.


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