Mass market retailers engaged in the fight against the SARS-CoV-2 virus and its devastating human and economic consequences should be ready for a long haul. Despite growing pressure in this country and around the world to end lockdowns and ease social distancing protocols, scientists warn that a headlong rush to the “new normal” could well trigger a resurgence in cases, negating hard-won progress toward controlling the disease.
Testifying before a Senate committee via a video link earlier this month, Dr. Anthony Fauci, widely acknowledged as the nation’s leading expert on infectious diseases, cautioned states and municipalities against ignoring the federal government’s guidelines and prematurely reopening parts of society.
In remarks that drew a subsequent rebuke from President Trump, Fauci said, “There is a real risk that you will trigger an outbreak that you may not be able to control, which, in fact, paradoxically, will set you back, not only leading to some suffering and death that could be avoided, but could even set you back on the road to try to get economic recovery.”
The day after Fauci testified, Federal Reserve chairman Jerome Powell offered a sobering analysis of the economic fallout from COVID-19 during a speech in which he urged Congress and the president to do more to shore up the economy. “The scope and speed of this downturn are without modern precedent,” said Powell, “significantly worse than any recession since World War II” — a view that picked up more evidence to support it, as if any were needed, when the number of people in the U.S. who have filed for unemployment since the onset of coronavirus emergency exceeded 36 million.
The dynamics outlined by Fauci and Powell point to difficult days ahead for mass market retailers and CPG suppliers. The appeal of browsing in stores has been shattered, at least until an effective treatment or vaccine for COVID-19 emerges; shopping patterns have been altered, with omnichannel options increasingly embraced by homebound consumers; and the spending power of millions of people has been slashed and won’t return to its pre-coronavirus level anytime soon.
The environment in which retailers operate changed abruptly, and perhaps irrevocably, during the first quarter of the year. Now it is up to merchants to rethink the way they do business and find different means to meet the basic needs of consumers. What Charles Darwin discovered about the natural world is applicable here — only entities that are able to adapt will survive in the long term.