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Mask Sales Rising Again Amid Virus Surge, Guidance

Stores face challenges in figuring how much they should order, given so much uncertainty regarding the virus.

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NEW YORK (AP) — Masks, which had started to disappear from store shelves, may be front and center again.

A spot check of businesses and other data sources are showing that mask sales have been rising in recent weeks as Americans worry about the surging cases of the delta variant of the coronavirus. Retail analysts expect mask sales will get another jolt after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention late Tuesday changed course on some masking guidelines, recommending that even vaccinated people return to wearing masks indoors in parts of the U.S. where the cases are surging.

Sales of masks rose 24% for the week ended Tuesday, compared to the prior week, reversing weekly declines since May, according to the Adobe Digital Economy Index. San Francisco-based grocery delivery company Instacart said mask sales via its online platform have increased since the Fourth of July weekend, reversing a decline that had begun in April. And Google reports that searches for the term “masks" doubled since the CDC announcement.

The scenario marks a shift from the past two months when masks were getting heavily discounted and were being pushed to the side on the sales floor following the CDC move to relax guidance on masks in May. Even before then, data from NielsenIQ shows that mask sales started to consistently decline weekly since early April, going from $101 million worth of masks to roughly $37 million for the week ended July 3. It doesn't yet have July sales figures.

“People were just not buying them — masks were really fading out," said Neil Saunders, managing director of GlobalData Retail. He noted that even as consumers go back to buying masks, the mask business is still not going to be as big as last year during the height of COVID-19. But he noted that stores face challenges in determining how much they should order and how much they should display them.

“No one actually wants to go out and make another big commitment," Saunders said. "No one knows what's going to happen."

For many stores looking to generate sales in an overall retail sales slump last year, masks were a bright spot. Most notably, Gap, along with its portfolio of brands including Old Navy and Athleta, as well as Etsy made millions of dollars on masks.

Etsy, a global online marketplace for handmade goods, has seen its masks go from 14% of gross merchandise sales in the second quarter of 2020 to less than 3% in the first quarter of 2021. The company declined to comment on mask sales trends on Wednesday, noting it's in its quiet period ahead of its earnings release next week.

Since the onset of the pandemic, 3M Co. increased its annual production of N95 masks fourfold to 2.5 billion by building extra capacity. It said that global demand reached its peak in the first quarter of this year, which included stockpiling from governments and hospitals. It's now seeing a deceleration in overall health care demand and is adjusting production, increasing supply to industrial and consumer outlets while continuing to prioritize health care workers in the geographies seeing increased COVID-19 cases and elevated hospitalization rates.

But 3M CEO Mike Roman told analysts on Tuesday that, just like in the past, it is “prepared to increase production in response to COVID-19-related needs or future emergencies when needed."

Honeywell International Inc., another big manufacturer of N95 masks, said it “continues to produce N95 masks in the U.S. to meet the needs of frontline and essential workers.”

In light of renewed interest in face coverings, Vanessa Gordon plans to relaunch later this week her website that sells masks she designed and produces in India. She launched in September 2020 with Shopify but closed it down in January because she only sold about 50 through the site and another 50 through family and friends. She said there was too much competition elsewhere. She also realized shoppers weren't wearing face coverings as much.

Gordon says she now feels confident she will quickly sell out of her inventory of 1,000 masks and will produce even more.

“People are still getting sick — even those who are vaccinated," Gordon said. “This is shifting people's mindset. I think we will be wearing masks for a long time.”

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