Denver retailers, shoppers weigh in on the COVID-born outlet for self-expression

A pair of mannequins posed in the window of True,a women’s boutique in the trendy River North Art District portion of Denver’s Five Points neighborhood, modeling fall looks.

One sported a marigold, textured sweater and wide-brimmed hat. The other was dressed in a black puffy coat over a pink shirt tucked into jeans. The second mannequin had something dangling from its ear that a year ago may have stuck passersby as odd. Seven months into the COVID-19 pandemic, however, a patterned cloth mask seems natural.

“They are really seen as the new accessory,” Monique Plante, a True sales associate, said. “They’re definitely popular. I do get people coming in and asking for masks.”

Joe’s Liquors, also located in the 2600 block of Larimer Street, sells masks, too. They’re on the counter next to the tobacco products and the liquor shooters. They’re cheaper than the masks at True, $5.99 compared to $12 or $14 each. Unlike the floral patterns among True’s offerings, Joe’s Liquors sells masks bearing the Colorado flag or a Denver Broncos logo.

“No choice,” Joe’s owner Ung Choi said when asked why he started carrying masks. “People have been asking.”

Joe Rubino, The Denver Post

A patterned mask is part of the look for one of mannequin posed in the window of True boutique at 2621 Larimer St. in Denver on Wednesday Oct. 14.

That the two neighboring — albeit very different businesses — are selling face coverings is a sign of the times. It’s also a testament to how many people in Denver and across the nation have adapted to public health experts’ recommendations and have embraced masks as an avenue for self-expression.

“It’s quickly moved from commodity to something that is a differentiator,” said Melissa Akaka, an associate professor of marketing with the University of Denver’s Daniels College of Business. “It’s affixed onto our body. It covers our face. Masks are definitely closely tied to how we engage with others and how we express ourselves.”

Government intervention has played a role in masks moving from something mostly associated with medical workers to being accepted and expected in contexts ranging from the workplace to Colorado’s mountain trails, said Akaka, co-director of DU’s Consumer Insights and Business Innovation Center. Gov. Jared Polis issued a statewide mask mandate in July that applies to everyone over the age of 11 and covering all indoor public spaces including stores. Polis on Monday extended the mandate for another 30 days amid a rise in coronavirus hospitalization in the state.

That intervention come with pushback. Demostrations have been held in Colorado protesting the mask order and other government restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of the virus. One held at Bandimere Speedway in Jefferson County last month drew more than 1,000 unmasked people.

As Choi has seen with the Denver Central Market food hall across the street from his store, many businesses enforced their own mandatory mask rules before the governor or city officials took action. And many people will buy a mask on the fly so they can shop where they want to shop.

“The mandate to wear them in particular areas means that we have to have enough of this product to get through our daily lives and once you have to wear them you might as well make them something you want to wear,” Akaka said.

Akaka has noticed stylization quickly has become a big part of mask-wearing, possibly because so many masks early in the pandemic were handmade by anyone with a sewing machine. Her 11-year-old daughter personalized a plain colored mask for herself after not being able to find one she liked online.

The COVID Essentials store in Park Meadows mall in Lone Tree opened Labor Day weekend to offer dozens of varieties of masks and face shields, which line the walls in showroom fashion. Masks run anywhere from $14.99 to $129.99 for a “wearable air purifier” with a built-in fan, according to co-owner Nathan Chen.

“Denver likes the blingy ones,” Chen said Tuesday, motioning toward a row of masks decorated with Swarovski crystals.

COVID Essentials offers accessories including lanyards and extra straps that allow masks to be connected behind the neck rather than looping over the ears. It also boasts a wide selection of iron-on patches ranging from numbers and letters to emojis and pop culture characters. Salesman Chris Guzman wore a mask with patches of the Pokémon Charizard and the Batman logo.

“Most of the day I’m in the custom corner pressing masks,” Chen said of the popularity of the patches. “We used to do that on our jeans and jackets when we were kids.”

Of course, there are plenty of masks with logos and designs already on them in the store. Masks bearing President Donald Trump’s name have been popular, Chen said. He also carries Joe Biden masks.

Denver resident Tina DeVita bought a polyester mask with a Broncos logo on it at COVID Essentials on Tuesday. It was a little pricey for her at $24.99 before taxes, but she had been looking for a Broncos mask and got a voucher for $5 off her next mask at the store.

Like many people who work in the hospitality industry right now, DaVita is struggling. She has been furloughed from her job at a hotel gift shop. She was wearing face coverings daily at work and had 12 masks before buying her Broncos print Tuesday.

“Now it feels like I need to have something where I can coordinate with my clothes whether it’s for business or casual,” DeVita said. “It’s the new normal so you might as well have fun with it.”

The Lone Tree store is one of eight COVID Essentials locations across the country. Chen’s partner Nadav Benimetzky launched the first one in Florida. The chain and its Park Meadows location were featured in a story by a Kaiser Health News reporter that was published on the New York Times website. In that story, Bienmetzky said “I can’t wait to go out of business eventually,” looking forward to when the coronavirus is contained and masks and other COVID-related supplies are no longer essentials.

Chen expects demand will take a while to fade. He frequently hears from customers that are concerned that a future vaccine might not be effective or some people may choose not to be vaccinated, he said. Those people expect to rely on masks as a line of defense even after a vaccine is rolled out. In the short term, people are buying masks they plan to wear on New Year’s Eve or give as gifts for the holidays, Chen said.

COVID Essentials has plenty of competition trying to meet that demand, even within its own mall. Park Meadows general manager Pamela Schenck Kelly estimates that about half of the more than 180 retailers open in the shopping center today sell masks.

“Unintended consequences: Masks have become part of the look,” Kelly said. “A lot of masks are an expression of a person’s views, an expression of their style. It’s almost like what the T-shirt was in the 70s.”

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