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One Year Later

It is one of those moments that stays in your memory, like where you were on 9-11, or the space shuttle exploded, or, for another generation, when President Kennedy was shot. On March 9, 2020, I, along with other leaders of statewide businesses organizations, went to the Governor’s Mansion to discuss how North Carolina would respond to the global pandemic threatening our health and safety. What I remember clearly was that while we awkwardly bumped elbows and talked about the upcoming ACC Tournament (that would be subsequently canceled) I was struck by the unusually large number of Governor Cooper’s staff that was present in the room. March 9, 2020 was the day COVID-19 became real and the impact it has had on North Carolina’s retail industry has been unimaginable.

Simply put, the retail industry has faced inconceivable challenges in the last year, but our retailers have also shown a steadfast resiliency. Here are just some of the challenges they have seen their way through over the past twelve months:

• Statewide Executive Orders and too many local orders to count, that covered from Murphy to Manteo, all of which imposed varying restrictions on the way retailers did business – hanging of plexiglass, one-way aisles, senior hours, occupancy restrictions, cleaning and sanitation requirements, health screenings, six-foot distances marked on the floors, curfews, enough signage to wallpaper a store wall and yes, mask mandates. Generally, when a new law is enacted by the North Carolina General Assembly and signed into law by the Governor, a business is provided ninety days, six months, or even a year to implement the new law. Week after week, retailers throughout the State were given forty-eight hours to come into compliance and do it perfectly or risk being fined, shut down, or shamed on social media. Even with the rules changing over and over, retailers did an amazing job navigating these statewide and local orders to provide a safe shopping experience for their customers and employees.

• Toilet paper, cleaning products, chicken, pork and beef, hand sanitizer, pasta, rice, produce, and paper towels became scarce as supply chains came to a grinding halt and customers determined that a buying a whole chicken rather than organic free-range chicken breasts would be just fine. This led to frustrated customers, especially those that had stood in-line waiting to get into the store due to occupancy limits.

• Retailers that were classified as “non-essential” by state and local governments were forced to close for eight weeks. These business owners who had invested blood sweat and tears into building their business, providing jobs, supporting their communities, and paying and collecting sales tax for state and local governments would tell you they are anything but “non-essential”. While they were closed these businesses were as determined as ever, and they began offering online shopping, curbside pickup and delivery, Facebook and Instagram live events and found new ways to reach their customers and sell their way out of COVID-19. Once they were allowed to reopen, these businesses continued to use their newfound business techniques and then worked diligently to create confidence with their customers that they could safely come back to their store to shop.

• As a public-facing business, retailers also had to balance the issues all of us were dealing with as employers, such as parents with kids doing virtual schooling, quarantines due to a family member contracting COVID-19, and concerns with customers who did not understand that the retailer was the
just trying to provide a safe environment and follow the law when they were enforcing state and local orders.

Despite these challenges, the retail apocalypse that was predicted by all of the so-called experts never materialized. Amid the depths of the first wave of the Covid-19 crisis in 2020, Coresight Research estimated that up to 20,000–25,000 stores could permanently close in the US during the year. Would it surprise you that the gross number of U.S.-based stores that closed in 2020 was only 8,721 and many of those that closed were part of multi-state chain operations that were teetering financially prior to COVID-19. And there is hope of a strong economic recovery. North Carolina realized an 8% increase in sales tax revenue partially due to collection of online sales tax and, just two weeks ago, the National Retail Federation issued its annual forecast, anticipating that retail sales will grow between 6.5 percent and 8.2%. Front-line essential workers in the retail industry, who have encountered hundreds to thousands of customers for the last twelve months, became eligible for their vaccinations last week.

They say what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger. Reflecting over the past year, the retail industry, which drives North Carolina’s economy and is responsible for one out of every four jobs in North Carolina, is poised to exit the pandemic even stronger. These businesses are going to make it to the other side, but they need your support, just as they have always supported their communities. Now is the time to head to the store and do some shopping.

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