Retailing, it can be safely and accurately argued, appears to have emerged as the least cohesive segment of the U.S. business community.
A case in point: the brouhaha over the wisdom of compelling customers and staffers to wear protective masks while on the premises. By any standard of measurement, wearing masks will do no harm. It just might, on the other hand, save or prolong lives, and will almost certainly provide another layer of protection against this insidious pandemic, one that has transformed American society into a nightmare.
During the coronavirus pandemic, the retailing community can logically be viewed as the first line of defense, the safe and secure haven to which American consumers turn for comfort, guidance and reassurance. As long as mass retailing exists, the old adage goes, nothing too bad can happen to the people of America.
Well, maybe not. The U.S. retailing community has, in this time of unimagined strife, confusion and uncertainty, been most noteworthy for its lack of a coordinated response. Put another way, the retailing community appears as lost as the rest of the country. The largely symbolic but potentially life-prolonging gesture of wearing masks should be a no-brainer for a segment of society that often sets the agenda for the entire business community. In this case, however, the edict that mask-wearing is a safe and sane, and necessary, first step toward containing the coronavirus outbreak has been notable by its absence.
Let us try to count the occasions when the retailing community has vacillated over this decision, declaring initially that masks are not necessary, then reversing itself by announcing that masks would henceforth be mandatory. This is hardly the level of leadership and decisiveness observers of mass retailing in America have been conditioned to accept — or demand.
This most recent example of indecisiveness is little more than a symptom. The real trouble here is, uncharacteristically, a lack of leadership. In times past, some individual or organization has emerged during a crisis to lead the way, to announce with certainty the direction retailing must take if it is to protect its universe and lead the nation out of a perilous pandemic.
But not this time. So it is that a decision as unassailable as donning masks has become dependent on the latest whims of the people running the retail companies that sustain and nourish America.
Where has that leadership gone? When did it disappear? How soon, if ever, will it reemerge? It seems folly to imagine that our official leadership organizations — federal, state or local — will provide that leadership, which has been woefully lacking during this crisis. Where, then, are the organizations and associations that have led the retailing community so effectively in the past? They appear, for the most part, to be missing in action.
Which leaves the retailers themselves, the top-management people who have repeatedly risen to the occasion of a timely acquisition, a new market entry, an appropriate hire or promotion at a time when such a personnel change is dictated, mandated and essential.
This time, they too appear to be missing in action. What’s called for here is a simple admonition to the shopping public: Wearing a mask may well save a life — or several. That’s what’s required — no more and no less. Wear a mask to save a life.
In the absence of such bold yet sound leadership, the retailing community is left to sit back, engage in endless debate and hope that, at some point, the leadership retailing currently lacks will reassert itself in some new, unanticipated, dramatic and welcome form.
It’s a hope born of despair. But it’s among the final hopes the retail community has left if it ever hopes to recapture the glory days that, until recently, made U.S. retailing the envy of the world.