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About 75% of Shoppers Say They’re Comfortable Going to Stores—But Not Right Away

Brick-and-mortar retail is indeed stagnating while consumers languish at home, but there’s cause for optimism, according to a 70,000-member group representing malls and shopping centers.

New data from the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC) reveals that 77 percent of shoppers said they’d feel comfortable going to stores to buy non-essentials within two months of those businesses reopening, and 74 percent said the same for open-air shopping centers.

The trend indicates that shoppers are itching to resume normal life, said ICSC vice president of public relations Stephanie Cegielski, and that could be a boon to retailers.  “It’s encouraging that people want to get out,” she added.

It will take time for people to feel confident that they’re not going to become infected with the virus while frequenting businesses, she said, and retailers, shopping centers and malls will have to take preventative measures to make shoppers feel safe.

It’s possible that store staff will continue to wear masks and gloves for the long haul, she said, and that retailers will need to provide hand sanitizer for shoppers.

“Responsible property owners and retailers will think about it, whether the consumer deems it a necessity to feel safe or not,” she said. The key for businesses will be communicating their efforts to shoppers in real time to let them know that they’re serious about their health.

“People have very different opinions depending on where you are in the country,” Cegielski said. Shoppers in more densely populated and harder-hit areas may feel more squeamish about getting back to brick-and-mortar shopping.

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“It’s fascinating—we’re New York based and we’ve seen this up close and personal,” she said. “People are responding differently across the country, and that’s going to drive a lot of what happens.”

While consumers are eager to resume their normal lives, they aren’t quite as convinced that the economy will bounce back. Half of all respondents said they believe the nation’s economic health will somewhat or significantly improve over the next year, while 34 percent said the opposite—that it will continue to plummet.

“There’s uncertainty about how long this will last, and what the long-term effects will be,” Cegielski said.

Some states, like Georgia and Tennessee, have plans to start reopening businesses as soon as next week, she added, hoping to jumpstart commerce. Consumer attitudes vary widely based on just how greatly their immediate surroundings have been impacted by the outbreak, she said.

Despite the differences of opinion, most shoppers (72 percent) are somewhat or strongly in favor of the recently passed CARES Act legislation, which has extended a financial lifeline to both individuals and small businesses.

For those receiving a stimulus check, the most popular purchases will be groceries and household goods.

Discretionary spending is largely on hold for the time being, Cegielski said. Retail sales numbers from March show that apparel took a significant hit, along with auto and gas spending.

As citizens across the nation are beginning to see stimulus cash hitting their accounts this April, they’re likely going to be making sensible purchases of “bare essentials” to keep them afloat through the crisis, she said.

When it comes to government relief allocation for industries, respondents ranked healthcare facilities, small businesses and mom-and-pop restaurants as those with the most pressing need for funding.

“As far as ranking non-essential versus essential businesses, I think they’re all essential beyond a pandemic situation,” Cegielski said. Across the board, businesses pay taxes and contribute to the health of the economy.

“Consumers overwhelmingly think that hospitals should benefit,” she said. “Small businesses should also benefit because they’re the lifeblood of communities.”

However, the CARES Act roll-out, which aimed to help those very businesses, has run into roadblocks in recent weeks. Namely, the program ran out of money last week.

“If we can’t get federal support, smaller businesses will be disproportionately impacted,” Cegielski warned.

On Tuesday, the Senate reached a deal to replenish the program’s funding, to the tune of $484 billion. The Paycheck Protection Program, which helps businesses keep employees on payroll, will receive $320 billion, while $60 billion will be set aside for small lenders.

As Congress works through this and other stimulus measures, Cegielski said, retail’s future will start to come into focus.

“If there isn’t a cash influx and liquidity on the day that they reopen, we may see a lot of small businesses go away,” she said.

Department stores were already struggling before the pandemic hit.

“They went into this with different problems than other retailers have, and whether this is what pushes them to close or file for bankruptcy protection, I’m not sure,” Cegielski said.

She believes that consumers want as many purchasing channels as possible, though, and that if they don’t start reinventing themselves an offering omnichannel services like click-and-collect, department stores will continue to struggle.

“Those who have learned to combine physical and digital retail,” she added, “have done much better.”