Lamont to retailers: Control ‘black COVID cloud’ on Black Friday
A week in advance of Thanksgiving, Gov. Ned Lamont reminded retail managers to stay vigilant in spacing shoppers apart on Black Friday and holiday weekends beyond.
The governor showed optimism that in-person retail can remain safe despite sharply rising COVID-19 cases, but held out the possibility of imposing additional restrictions during the renewed surge of COVID-19 infections.
“I really urge you to be strict,” Lamont said during the annual meeting of the Connecticut Retail Merchants Association hel via web conference. “I’m doing everything I can ... to keep retail open. But if we get a lot of noise that places are crowded, people aren’t wearing the mask, people are getting casual — keeping things open is going to be at risk.”
While Lamont has issued similar warnings in the past, his latest comments come against the backdrop of Black Friday deals the day after Thanksgiving — which are already in play in many instances — that could spur more people to hit stores.
“Here we go again — but this time it’s different,” Lamont said, . “We are much smarter right now about what makes a difference in terms of restrictions. ... I do strongly believe that we’ll be able to keep retail going, even as the infection rate potentially goes up.”
Lamont added “the overwhelming majority” of retailers have adhered to rules set forth last May by his administration’s Reopening Connecticut committee, including mandating the use of masks indoors and setting up floor markers and signs to remind people to maintain six feet of distance where possible, and keep aisles one-way.
But some retailers have taken stricter measures than others. Whole Foods Market and Trader Joe’s have been stationing staff at entrances to allow customers inside only as capacity allows. Other large supermarket chains have yet to do so with any consistency across stores.
With what Lamont described as a “black COVID cloud” looming over Black Friday, the governor said Thursday the onus now shifts to merchandise retailers to maintain those requirements — as he told them they must police themselves rather than rely on outside enforcement.
A spokesperson with the state Department of Economic and Community Development indicated enforcement is in the hands of municipalities.
In early holiday spending projections, the International Council of Shopping Centers and CBRE have reported expectations for about a 2 percent increase in retail spending in this year’s shopping season. That could reflect pent-up demand from nine months of distancing.
During the Thursday conference, National Retail Federation CEO Matthew Shay said the group will soon publish its own outlook for holiday sales, while noting it hinges on states allowing stores to stay open if the pandemic worsens.
Shay added consumers have demonstrated “enormous resilience” this year, with October receipts up 10.6 percent from a year ago and 6 percent for all 2020, if subtracting gasoline and vehicle sales which are down due to remote working.
“It’s hard to think back and realize that as we came into the beginning of this year, the retail industry was coming off a record year in 2019,” Shay said. “Last year we grew [revenue] 4.2 percent, so it was a really strong consumer environment and we were in position to have a great year — and then the pandemic hit. ... A bad as the pandemic is getting again, in terms of the impact of the virus, we’ve learned a lot since the spring about how to stay open, how to take care of each other.”
Brian Dodge, president of the Retail Industry Leader’s Association, whose members include many Black Friday magnets such as Best Buy, Costco, Target and Walmart, said that the most successful retailers during the pandemic were those that were already pairing digital shopping options with their physical stores — or were able to pivot quickly to the concept.
“The real lesson that we’ve learned, as we’ve settled into the recovery part of this crisis, is that the consumer is certainly changed — but I don’t think the change is anything that we haven’t already anticipated,” Dodge said. “By and large, the COVID crisis of 2020 has accelerated previous trends. ... It has accelerated the trend of personalization, and the digital component of the retail experience.”
Alex.Soule@scni.com; 203-842-2545; @casoulman