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Stories and information in our region on the COVID-19 pandemic.

Will Shoppers Return To The Mall? A Connecticut Economist Weighs In.

Rich Pedroncelli
Allie Arredonodo wears a mask as she tries on shoes at a Journey's store in the Yuba Sutter Mall in Calif., Wednesday. As Connecticut shops prepare to reopen, it's unknown if consumers will go back to their prior shopping habits.

Some businesses in Connecticut will reopen on May 20. WSHU’s Davis Dunavin spoke to an economics professor who says the doors may be open, but customers might not be ready to walk through them.

Among those opening next week – restaurants, retail outlets and malls. Westfield announced its malls in Meriden and Trumbull will reopen with limited hours on May 20. Governor Ned Lamont warned this week both consumers and businesses may be a bit anxious in the new world.

“I wanna make sure the store owners feel safe to open their store, I wanna make sure the customers feel safe going back in the store, and I wanna make sure everyone working in the store feels safe as well. We allow more stores to open, we encourage people to feel safe, but it’s not until people feel safe that the economy will slowly come back into stride.”

Fred McKinney is the director of the People’s United Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut.

“I’m gonna hedge a little bit. I will say some consumers are ready to come back, but I think most consumers are not.”

Now how are they going to be making their decision? Do you think they’re nervous about sanitation, conditions?

“No one wants to get sick. The difficulty with this disease is that you can be asymptomatic and still be contagious. It’s that anxiety, that unknown that is going to keep consumers even more risk-averse than they have been in the past, and is going to keep them out in large numbers of these environments where they can get sick.”

McKinney says we may know within days whether people are comfortable in malls and other stores. He doesn’t expect a big sales spike in those first days, or even pre-COVID-19 sales figures.

“But that’s not to say that all consumers are gonna behave that way. I think there will be some consumers, either because they are stir crazy, they’ve been locked up in their homes for so long, they just gotta get out. And then you’ve got some, unfortunately I think for political reasons, that wanna say the hell with science, I’m gonna go and show that this disease is not as bad as they say it is.”

McKinney says he’s optimistic we’ll have a vaccine and effective treatments for COVID-19 eventually. But he doesn’t see much of a silver lining for many retailers in the meantime. Even before the pandemic, one study said one in four malls was expected to close by 2022. Since the pandemic, major retailers like J. Crew and Neiman Marcus have declared bankruptcy.

“I feel for them. Many of those smaller companies, the companies that are not affiliated with large chains, and most of the retailers in malls. The clock is running for those businesses. They’ve got a period of time in which to employ or reemploy their workforce. But what scares me is that the businesses are gonna be very difficult to be profitable at, say, 50, 60, 70% of regular consumer traffic.”

When stores do reopen, some public health experts have warned us we can expect to see another spike in cases, another spike in deaths. What is going to be the reaction from the public at that point? Will they blame the stores for being too anxious to reopen?

“When we reopen up the economy and when we start to witness increases in the incidents of COVID-19, there will be people and organizations to blame. What’s gonna happen when things settle down after that second wave and they say, ‘Okay it’s safe now to go back? Well, you told me once that it was safe, and it wasn’t. Why should I believe you this time? That has the potential to really damage the economy even more.”

McKinney says – for this reason – it could be a long time before many people really trust the inside of a retail store again.

Read the latest on WSHU’s coronavirus coverage here.

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