Jinxed by the Vaccine

Yes, everyone wants the pandemic to end, but one industry is worried about the potential timing.

No question, the world is eagerly awaiting the new COVID-19 vaccines, which the drugmakers boast are quite effective. But retailers who had high hopes for the holiday season can’t help but wonder if the latest developments only jinx their prospects.

As it stands now, the prevailing timeline calls for the vaccine to come out in the spring—which experts say could very well convince retail customers to hold off on anything but the most essential of purchases. That period would include the sector’s critical holiday season. “This is kind of the worst of both worlds,” says Craig Rowley, Korn Ferry’s global practice leader for the consumer sector. “We have a significant increase in COVID-19 cases now, and the promise of a vaccine a few months away.”

Obviously, everyone wants the pandemic to end. But the current timing may mean retailers would lose out not only on in-person shoppers waiting for safer times, but also online buyers who might decide to wait for the economy, aided by the vaccine, to improve. Overall, holiday sales in November and December have averaged about one-fifth of annual sales, with some stores reporting even higher numbers. Adding to the complications, most retailers made their merchandizing decisions for this holiday season around this time in 2019, when only a few epidemiologists had heard of COVID-19.

Few industries, of course, have been bounced around by the pandemic as much as retail. While some “essential” retailers thrived, the pandemic forced several popular chains into bankruptcy. Still, retailers had seen their sales rebound strongly from the depths of the spring until this past month. Since April, sales in the sector have rebounded by more than 30%.

Now, like everyone else, stores are dealing with another surge in COVID-19 cases worldwide. Many retailers that had installed new signage to encourage social distancing and mask wearing in the spring might have gotten a little lax in enforcement, Rowley says. They will have to become vigilant again, he says, but even that might not convince customers to return to stores. “Customers are not going to shop if they don’t feel safe,” he says.

Some retail-related firms had already given up on the holiday season. With travel bans and quarantines in effect, travel and hospitality leaders are not even bothering to encourage more travel through discounts this holiday season, says Radhika Papandreou, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and leader of the firm’s North America Travel, Hospitality, and Leisure practice. Instead, she says, they are focusing on hunkering down and shoring up their balance sheets to get through the winter. “Short-term gains during winter months are not going to make or break travel and hospitality companies at this point,” she says.

Even when the vaccine is widely distributed, there will be two pandemic-related questions to sort out: How many workers will be back in an office? And how often? Organizations in nearly every industry are struggling to answer this question for themselves, but it has huge implications for retail. The more people working in a physical workplace means customers need more suits, dress shoes, and other office attire. “You can’t go back to the office in yoga pants,” Rowley quips.

Unfortunately, retail company clothing buyers are placing clothing orders for the 2021 holiday season now. Guessing wrong could lead to either way too many khaki pants and sweater sets or way too few—scenarios that could crush a retailer’s holiday profits. “The unknown is horrible,” Rowley says.