Retail Sales Rebounded in May, but the Road Back Is Long

“There is some indication there is normal behavior out there,” said Jay Sole, a retail analyst at UBS, “where people want to go back to normal, they want to go have fun, get out of the house, and they’re buying the apparel they need to do that.”

But at the same time, many shoppers are encountering an experience that’s very different from what they are accustomed to. There may be long lines outside stores because only a limited number of people are allowed inside at a time. Changing rooms are closed in many places, forcing shoppers to approximate sizes and inevitably generating more returns. For some, shopping is simply less fun and far more transactional in the pandemic era.

On Sunday, shoppers waited outside the J. Crew Factory in an outlet mall in Westbrook, Conn.; signs said that the store’s capacity was 10 people and that masks were required. A greeter pointed customers to a table holding hand sanitizer when they walked in, and fitting rooms were unavailable. The shopping bore little resemblance to the leisurely, enjoyable experience that malls typically promote on their websites and in ads.

And even if shoppers are beginning to venture out again, the pandemic has already pushed many major names into bankruptcy, including J. Crew, the Neiman Marcus Group and J.C. Penney. While those companies are not liquidating, some number of future store closings and job losses loom, and there are still other retail bankruptcies on the horizon.

To that end, outlet malls and other retailers in open-air spaces may be better off than indoor malls as Americans readjust to the new norms of shopping. Gap, for example, noted that it was seeing better results at Old Navy stores, which are often away from enclosed shopping malls, as customers were more confident in such locations and better able to take advantage of new services like curbside pickup.

Enclosed malls “seem like the weakest channel out there now in terms of traffic,” Mr. Sole said.

He said that while last month was better than expected for sellers of clothing and footwear, there was “a real wait-and-see attitude” about how back-to-school shopping might shape up in late July and early August and still concern about a potential second wave of the coronavirus.

Retailers are “hoping for the best and preparing for the worst,” he said.

Ben Casselman and Jeanna Smialek contributed reporting.