Video above: Experts say easing up on COVID-19 precautions while grocery shopping is a bad idea
When the COVID-19 pandemic began on March 11, it disrupted pretty much every major industry, from hospitality to sports to finance. In the world of retail, those disruptions were felt most strongly in three places: the closure of brick-and-mortar stores, supply shortages and shipping delays. With this threefold punch, shopping in 2020 is quite a different experience than in years past. And while it only may be July, we’re already thinking of the holiday shopping season ahead, and how the pandemic might affect your retail plans.
So what exactly happened to the retail industry?
When cities started entering lockdowns in March, nonessential businesses were ordered to close, and that included the majority of retail operations, with exceptions for grocery stores, hardware stores, among a few others. So would-be shoppers had to turn to online purchases. That surge in online orders increased manifold when consumers started panic-buying things like toilet paper and hand sanitizer in order to stockpile them, and retailers simply weren’t prepared. As such, they ran into production and shipping delays.
All of that was compounded by the implementation of coronavirus safety measures such as social distancing, which, in terms of the supply chain (including production and distribution centers), meant that fewer people could work at any given time, thus slowing down the process. And finally, the couriers who deliver products — the United States Postal Service, FedEx and United Parcel Service, among others — also experienced some delays with the excessive number of packages being shipped. Ultimately, the time between ordering a product and receiving it became super dragged out.
Will brick-and-mortar stores reopen?
Many already have! Lockdowns are being phased out across the country, which is allowing retail stores to reopen, although many must abide by occupancy restrictions. But the bad news is coronavirus cases are spiking in a number of U.S. cities, meaning the lockdowns might return to some areas.
Are products back in stock?
It’s a work in progress. "Retailers are still not operating at 2019 product levels,” says Kayla Marci, a market analyst at data-driven retail consultancy EDITED. “The number of new products available in the U.S. market last week was -43% lower than in 2019.”
Rather than debut new products, many retailers have focused on ramping up production of their current catalogs to meet demand. “We provided a variety of resources to help sellers manage their shops during the pandemic, including recommendations on how to navigate shifting schedules and operational changes,” says Isabella Diaz, Community Education Specialist at Etsy.
What about delays?
As with implementing any changes into a routine, incorporating new pandemic safety procedures was a bit of a bumpy road for many retailers and couriers, but they are now adjusting to these new processes.
On the retail side, there’s been a surge in innovation. “The pandemic has forced retailers to experiment as well as invest in innovation and technology that will improve their processes post-COVID,” says Marci. “We see this with managing order fulfillment. Gap Inc., for example, recently expanded the number of Kindred SORT robots used to manage its supply chain, helping its distribution centers to more effectively cater to the demand for online orders due to the pandemic.”
And on the shipping side, additional hires are being made to help meet demand. “The Postal Service, like other delivery companies, has experienced some temporary service disruptions in a few locations domestically due to the pandemic,” says USPS spokesperson Kimberly Frum. “But we continue to leverage our available resources to match the increased workload, including hiring based on local needs.”
So do I need to start holiday shopping early?
It really depends on a variety of factors. If you’re shopping in person, you might want to start now, simply because we don’t know whether or not stores will remain open through December.
If you’re shopping online from independent makers, you’re likely going to see relatively normal delivery timelines, since they’re not entirely dependent on a massive supply chain. For instance, Etsy sellers have adapted quickly to the new normal. “Many have quickly pivoted resources to meet surging consumer demands,” says Diaz. But that doesn’t mean you should wait until the last minute. “We typically start to see buyers shop for holiday items as early as September,” she points out.
When it comes to bigger brands, there’s still a bit of a backlog. “When COVID-19 first broke out, retailers advised customers via email of potential shipping delays. Months on, these messages are still prominent in communications from brands such as Beyond Yoga, Torrid, and BGBMaxmara,” says Marci. “With the uncertainty surrounding a second potential outbreak, it's difficult to deduce when timelines may return to normal.”
But there’s still hope on the horizon. “Fortunately, the majority of our manufacturers' production timelines have returned to our typical two- to four-week lead times,” says Danielle Walish, creative director and co-founder of custom furniture company The Inside. “We expect that, in the next few weeks, all of our shipping timelines will be back to normal.’
Whatever their current situation is with order fulfillment timelines, retailers are striving to be as transparent as possible to keep their customers’ trust. “Like many other companies, our shipping timelines were impacted by COVID-19, but we are now back up and running while we carefully implement CDC Guidelines to protect employees and customers,” says Allison O'Connor, President and CEO Of Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams. “As always, we will be providing deadlines to order by for each holiday, both in our stores and on our website.”
The long and short of it is that it’s been incredibly difficult to predict anything with certainty during this pandemic. Make sure to check in regularly with your favorite retailers, and start shopping early to avoid any potential heartbreak if your package doesn’t arrive on time!