The mass market for masks in the wake of COVID-19

The Big Business of Masks Today…and Tomorrow

Suddenly, masks are being sold everywhere and anywhere in the retail world today. Will the “Product of the Pandemic” be sustainable in the future?

Overview

Masks. There everywhere today — and rightfully so. Thanks to the coronavirus, a very sleepy product category suddenly became — literally — the must-have item of the day earlier in this very strange year of 2020.

For now, and for the foreseeable future, masks will be a part of our everyday existence. And so, not surprisingly as the pandemic continues to rage on, masks have morphed from just simple necessities to become even fashionable today. The need for masking has certainly created opportunities across the retail spectrum, with everyone from big box physical retailers and Amazon to individual mask makers selling their products both online and in-person. Now depending on how one looks at the situation, the “mask marketers’’ are either providing a vital public service and/or cashing-in on American’s need for masks. But will this trend last — and how will the vaccine change the mass mask market we see today?

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Photo by André Ravazzi on Unsplash

The Personalization of Masks

It is truly amazing to consider that while mask wearing while in public has been quite common in Asian countries for years, before the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States, it would be a rarity to see someone wearing a mask. If one did see a person wearing a mask, one would almost automatically think (you might hate to admit it, but it was true) that they were either ill or medically fragile themselves or — eeeeeeks! — they might have something contagious!

Today of course, all of that has changed in the seeming blink of an eye. Mask wearing — for all the political and social fury over these face coverings — has become, more or less, an accepted part of our daily existence. And while we have had our political battles over masks…

….and there are still occasional — and loud — protests from the “anti-maskers”…

… poll after poll shows that Americans have adapted to wearing masks to protect themselves and others today (See Figure 1 — Morning Consult: Growth in Wearing Face Masks in Public, April to July 2020). And yes, what you see on your own trips out to the grocery store or Christmas shopping shows that as 2020 comes to a close (thank goodness, most would add!), masks have become an accepted, if slightly uncomfortable, part of our everyday lives.

Figure 1 — Morning Consult: Growth in Wearing Face Masks in Public, April to July 2020

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Source: Morning Consult, https://morningconsult.com/2020/07/30/covid-face-masks-polling-update/

While masking may have become the norm, Americans have shown that they have individual preferences for the type of mask they may be wearing. While there is solid medical evidence out there that certain masks perform their protective functions “better” than others…

…Americans persist in choosing the form of mask they wear based on a wide variety of personal factors. A recent report from the research firm CivicScience shows just how varying mask preferences are among Americans today. As can be seen in Figure 2 (The Type of Face Masks Americans Wear Most Often), cloth masks of one form or another are the most common form of mask worn today, with a variety of more (an N95 or other respirator mask) or less (including neck gaiters, balaclavas, and bandanas) sophisticated forms of masks being worn as well

Figure 2 — The Type of Face Masks Americans Wear Most Often

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Source: CivicScience, https://civicscience.com/big-box-retail-mask-purchases-doubled-since-july-and-support-for-wearing-them-is-strong/

And while masks may come in a handful of forms, they have certainly taken on a new place in American culture, as they have become a fashion statement today.

The Mass Mask Market

There has been an interesting dichotomy that has developed in the mask market today. This is the fact that there is growth in the sales of masks both among those who you would consider the “usual suspects” — i.e. big retailers — and among the very diffuse, very individualized sellers on Etsy. The CIvicScience report referenced earlier went into detail analyzing the increase in mask sales seen in both physical retail stores and on Amazon and other major online stores. As can be seen in Figure 3 (Percent of Americans Who Have Bought a Mask in from a Major Retailer/Big Box Store), almost a third of Americans (31%) had purchased a mask in a large retail store as of last month, up from 17% in July. Likewise,

Figure 3 — Percent of Americans Who Have Bought a Mask in from a Major Retailer/Big Box Store

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Source: CivicScience, https://civicscience.com/big-box-retail-mask-purchases-doubled-since-july-and-support-for-wearing-them-is-strong/

as can be seen in Figure 4 (Percent of Americans Who Have Bought a Mask from Amazon or Other Online Retailers), more and more Americans are buying masks online from retailers like Amazon — and beyond. One other very interesting finding from the CivicScience report is that Americans are not — to date — very brand conscious in terms of their masking. As can be

Figure 4 — Percent of Americans Who Have Bought a Mask from Amazon or Other Online Retailers

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Source: CivicScience, https://civicscience.com/big-box-retail-mask-purchases-doubled-since-july-and-support-for-wearing-them-is-strong/

seen in Figure 5 (Consumers’ Experience with Mask Brands), these researchers found Americans to have not gravitated to major sports (Nike, UnderArmour) and fashion brands (Old Navy, Lulemon) in their mask buying.

Figure 5 — Consumers’ Experience with Mask Brands

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Source: CivicScience, https://civicscience.com/big-box-retail-mask-purchases-doubled-since-july-and-support-for-wearing-them-is-strong/

So while the just-issued (December 2020) CIvicScience report is entitled “Big-Box Retail Mask Purchases Doubled Since July (And Support for Wearing Them Is Strong),” to me, as a strategic management professor and consultant, the real story is that yes, there will be a “mass mask market,” but the real story of the mask market is not to be found at Walmart, Target, Macy’s, or even Old Navy, and neither is the story — this time — how Amazon will rule the online mask market. The real story is the micro parts of the market that are combining — spontaneously, organically — to form what is the very real mass market for masks. Since the early days of the pandemic, analysts have marveled at how individuals making masks for others and selling them on Etsy have become a major force in helping Americans to “mask up” by supplying the masks they needed — and yes, in the styles they wanted…

…And now, as a just released report on Etsy from Felix Richter at the analyst firm Statista shows just how important the role of mask sales have had in propelling the online marketplace’s phenomenal growth in 2020 (See Figure 6 — Etsy’s Global Gross Merchandise Sales [in billions of dollars]).

Figure 6 — Etsy’s Global Gross Merchandise Sales (in billions of dollars)

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Source: Statista, https://www.statista.com/chart/23729/etsy-gross-merchandise-sales/

Analysis

In the end, what does the mask market look like going forward? Will there be a mass mask market as we see right now (and yes, masks are going to be a BIG Christmas gift this holiday season!), or will mask sales fade quickly with the introduction of the vaccine in the new year? Will there also be a mask glut — both in the marketplace and in people’s drawers — with saturation both on the global and individual levels? It remains to be seen how the mask market will shakeout — and there will be a shakeout. However, what is apparent is that the mass mask market is actually a very individualized, very diverse and diffuse market today. There will be a place both for the massive retailers and fashion brands and for individual mask makers and sellers as people seek to find the mask — by type, by purpose/effectiveness, by style, and yes, by price — that is right for them. It is truly a market, perhaps unlike any other, where individualization is the key, and that, for once, bodes better for the smaller makers and the smaller sellers than the Walmarts and the Amazons that typically dominate today’s retail market.

And looking ahead, even with a vaccine, the public health experts hold that masks (along with social distancing) will continue to be a part of our daily existence going forward for years to come. Thus, this portends that the mask market will be a mass one, and one that will continue to be vibrant in the years ahead. It is indeed an unusual market, one in which both the leading fashion brands and individual makers/sellers can compete and succeed in today. While we don’t generally see Nike competing with a Mom in Nebraska who makes masks to sell both online and at the local farmer’s market, that is the mass mask market today. Certainly, what has happened in 2020 with the explosion of mask wearing and mask sales has been a unique chapter in both the history of America and American business, and it will be interesting to see how the mask market further develops as we enter new phases of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021 and unfortunately, likely beyond.

About David Wyld

David Wyld (dwyld@selu.edu) is a Professor of Strategic Management at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, Louisiana. He is a management consultant, researcher/writer, publisher, executive educator, and experienced expert witness.

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David Wyld (dwyld@selu.edu) is a Professor of Strategic Management at Southeastern Louisiana University. He is a noted business consultant and writer.

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