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Face Masks Provide A New Frontier For Retailers During Coronavirus Crisis

May 21, 2020
Originally published on May 22, 2020 12:24 am

Retailers across the apparel world are turning to the newest essential garment to further their brand recognition and boost sales: the nonmedical face mask.

Nordstrom announced Tuesday it would begin selling face masks for $4 each in packs of six. The move comes just weeks after the Seattle-based retailer announced it would permanently shutter 16 stores after the coronavirus pandemic forced all of its locations to close.

Nordstrom began selling nonmedical cloth face masks Tuesday. Two days later, the masks had sold out on Nordstrom's website.
Nordstrom

The company is the latest in a string of apparel brands to add face masks to its repertoire as demand continues to grow. Retail giants like The Gap and its subsidiaries, Banana Republic, Athleta and Old Navy, also began selling masks earlier this month.

Despite the recent flood of new brands offering masks, the product is selling out across the market. Nordstrom's packs of masks are sold out just two days after coming on the scene, and many of Gap's masks are on back order until mid-June. Kim Kardashian West's brand SKIMS began selling face masks May 16 and sold out hours later.

However, selling out is not so much a function of demand as it is a reflection of the uncertainty looming over the retail industry in general, retail analyst Sucharita Kodali of Forrester told NPR. Retailers have no precedent to base the volume of their supply on, and no idea how long the demand will last.

"There's just not data," says Kodali. "Nobody knew what to expect for what products because they'd never faced this dilemma before."

Retailers also face a gummed-up supply chain, as many of the factories where these masks are manufactured are overseas, she says. The supply chain backups also allowed smaller companies to jump on the trend more quickly.

"The smaller companies are more nimble, they're able to respond to changes more quickly. They see trends and they jump," she says. "Whereas for a lot of other companies, they're just hoping this passes. ... They're candidly just not as nimble."

One of the nimble is e-commerce website Etsy. The site saw a giant spike of "face mask" in its search results in the first week of April, shortly after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's recommendation that face coverings be worn at all times in public, according to a company investor presentation. In April alone, the site grossed more than $130 million in face mask sales, according to the presentation.

A silk face mask made by Etsy shop MilleSaisons. The mask is a bestseller on the Etsy e-commerce website.
MilleSaisons

"We sold over 12 million face masks in the month of April alone," CEO Josh Silverman said in a call with investors. "In fact, if face masks were a stand-alone category, it would have been the second biggest category on Etsy in the month of April."

Etsy also saw a 79% increase from April of last year among other products, according to the presentation.

"I would argue they were just in the right place at the right time," says Kodali. "When you think of who is able to consolidate the power of a million sewers in the country, the only answer is Etsy."

Many brands are also using the worldwide demand for face masks as an opportunity to build positive engagement by making charitable donations of their face mask sales. Both Disney and the NBA have begun to sell masks with the commitment that proceeds will go to various charities. Disney, for one, took major losses in the first three months of 2020, with net income down 91% compared to the year before. Nordstrom and Gap have both donated masks to health care workers and other charitable causes.

Still, for most of the companies now selling masks, and especially for those as large as Gap and Nordstrom, Kodali says sales will not affect the bottom line. Selling the masks is more a demonstration of how flexible a company can be in the face of the unexpected.

"If you're a retailer and you don't have masks, that probably means you have bigger issues with your supply chain."

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