In the time of the coronavirus epidemic, grocery and big-box stores are some of the only retailers still open for business. In some states, local governments have banned retailers such as Walmart, Costco and Target from selling “nonessential” merchandise, such as clothing, electronics, books and toys. To enforce the restrictions, the stores rope off certain areas so that customers cannot access them.
Officials say that by continuing to sell these nonessential items, they are unnecessarily endangering the health of their employees and customers by allowing more customers to congregate to shop for them, as well as increasing the likelihood of the further spread of the virus.
As of March 31, the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Development directed big-box retailers — including Target, Walmart and Costco — to cease in-person sales of nonessential items temporarily to reduce the number of people coming into the stores. The items can still be sold for delivery or curbside pickup.
“Large ‘big box’ retailers generate significant shopping traffic by virtue of their size and the variety of goods offered in a single location,” Lindsay Kurrle, Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development secretary, said in a press release. “This volume of shopping traffic significantly increases the risk of further spread of this dangerous virus to Vermonters and the viability of Vermont’s health care system. We are directing these stores to put public health first and help us reduce the number of shoppers by requiring on-line ordering, delivery and curbside pickup whenever possible, and by stopping the sale of non-essential items.”
In Summit County, Colorado, which has been hit hard by the pandemic, a similar policy dictates that retailers that meet the definition of grocery, pharmacy, pet food store or hardware store can only sell those items included in those categories, such as pharmaceuticals, groceries, cleaning products, pet food and supplies, and hardware. Retailers can continue to sell other nonessential goods online or phone for delivery or curbside pickup.
The policies have been met with mixed reactions.
Neil Saunders, managing director of retail research agency GlobalData Retail, took to Twitter to criticize the practice of banning retailers from selling certain types of products:
This is plain dumb and clearly comes from politicians who have no clue of how retail works! https://t.co/3cCK7hrOXH
— Neil Saunders (@NeilRetail) April 11, 2020
“This is plain dumb and clearly comes from politicians who have no clue how retail works!” he wrote.
In a series of tweets, he pointed to several factors that he says contribute to the policies’ flaws, including difficulty in distinguishing between essential and nonessential goods, the increased stress on the companies and their staff and the possibility that having certain sections roped off will only concentrate more customers in the areas that are open.
Proponents of the policies say they’re an integral part of controlling the spread of the virus and will help reduce some exposure to the virus for retail workers, who are already working long hours and spending extra time thoroughly cleaning the open sections of the store every day. They also hope to discourage boredom shopping from people who are tired of being stuck at home.
Ville Vuorinen, a physicist at Aalto University in Finland who was on a team that recently studied how one cough could spread particles in a grocery store, told Business Insider that these policies make sense if they mean shoppers will spend less time in the store. “If you reduce the time a person is in a supermarket by 50%, you reduce the amount of potentially viral aerosol [droplets] in the air by 50%.”
These temporary bans have led to some confusion for the retailers themselves. One Walmart in Michigan came under fire for closing a baby products aisle, where one woman was trying to buy a car seat for a friend who is expecting a baby in May. Walmart later clarified how they were complying with the nonessential items policy, saying car seats and other infant products should be available to customers — but adding that buying online was always an option.
What do you think of these policies?