Mask brands face a post-pandemic future

Face masks aren’t headed for the clearance bin yet.
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Francis Scialabba

· 4 min read

On May 13, the CDC said fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear masks outdoors or in many indoor settings. By the end of the day, DTC startup Barrière had sold more than 1,000 masks, cofounder Cleo Davis-Urman told Retail Brew.

“I always knew that mask mandates would expire, and we have started to launch different products that would hopefully offset some of those potential downward trends,” she said. “But the last couple of months, sales have been higher than ever.”

For every vaccinated shopper dancing around a mask bonfire in light of the CDC’s updated guidance, there’s another who’s still reluctant to shed theirs. Within four days of the CDC’s announcement, 61% of respondents to a Vox/Data for Progress survey said they would continue to wear masks outside. That includes more than half of respondents who are fully vaccinated.

Comfort levels will rise as the pandemic winds down—but masks are “likely here to stay,” Katie Thomas, lead of the Kearney Consumer Institute, told Retail Brew. This year is, of course, an anomaly, with face masks projected to become a $22+ billion global industry in 2021, up from $737 million in 2019, per ResearchAndMarkets data. Come 2025, the market will still be sizable at $3 billion.

“Certain people just aren't going to feel comfortable being out and about without [masks], so the need's not going away,” Patrick Henry, known professionally as “Fresh” and cofounder of Henry masks, told Retail Brew. Within two months of joining Amazon this spring, sales are already matching those generated on its DTC channel. Henry has sold nearly a million masks since debuting in April 2020; packs of two begin at $25.

Barrière, meanwhile, already crossed the one-million-mask mark since launching last September (prices range from $15 to $48 for a three-pack).

Mask-only brands like Henry and Barrière probably have a “considerable life span ahead,” according to Thomaï Serdari, director of the fashion and luxury MBA program at NYU Stern. Dedicated retailers have a stronger sense of fashion trends and product specialization to make their companies last, she said.

Serdari isn’t as confident about homespun sellers, whose operations lack the same resources and design expertise. Mask sales are already fizzling on the No. 1 side hustleplatform, Etsy: In Q2 2020, Etsy sold $346 million worth of homemade masks, or 14% of gross merchandise sales (GMS) in the quarter. By Q1 2021, that percentage fell to 2.5% of GMS. Some masks now cost less than a gallon of milk.

Still in stock

DTC brands didn’t plan to turn their mask side hustles into permanent categories, but some are pivoting on their pivot.

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“I knew going into it, this is going to be a very robust category, but it's fleeting to some extent,” accessories designer Lele Sadoughi, who introduced masks last spring, told Retail Brew.

Sure enough, Sadoughi said sales leveled off in recent weeks as vaccination rates rose. But new markets—like air travel or public transportation—have convinced Sadoughi her brand will “always have masks.” Plus, they’ve functioned as a customer acquisition tool. Shoppers who started in the mask section have gone on to buy headbands and hats, she told us.

Large retailers aren’t ditching masks anytime soon either (their store policies are another topic). “It doesn't take that much space on the shelf,” Serdari explained. “It is not an expensive category to carry, to satisfy that portion of customers who want it.”

And there are customers yet to be acquired: children who won’t be eligible for vaccines until the fall, adults who are choosing to not receive a vaccine, adults who have a vaccine and want to stay covered up anyway. Fresh and Davis-Urman both anticipate steady business from all three groups.

Henry is even courting customers abroad: It’s joining Amazon Canada this week, with plans to enter Latin America later in the year. Covid-19 cases haven’t subsided in many countries, meaning there’s still demand for masks, Fresh said.

Kearney’s Thomas also predicted a winter mask resurgence, since consumers are “aware that mask-wearing led to reduced common cold and flu numbers.”

By then, even more shoppers will have met the CDC’s vaccination requirements for shedding their masks. But for those who’d rather not go barefaced, mask brands will still have them covered.

Retail news that keeps industry pros in the know

Retail Brew delivers the latest retail industry news and insights surrounding marketing, DTC, and e-commerce to keep leaders and decision-makers up to date.