Is it okay to profit from a pandemic?
With fashionable masks and coronavirus-themed t-shirts hitting the market, exactly what merchandise is appropriate to sell amid a pandemic is up for debate. A first question, however, appears to be whether businesses can currently be seen making a profit.
Opportunists rushing out to buy sanitizer, face masks and wipes to sell online at exorbitant prices were embarrassed and saw their listings pulled by Amazon.com.
But what about the sales racked up by grocers amid the hoarding? To some, donations by Kroger, Publix, Walmart and other food sellers that have gone to supporting pandemic-related relief efforts have shielded them from perceptions that they are unduly profiting.
Scores of firms with manufacturing capabilities have shifted production to make face masks and other PPE as donations to hospitals.
Yet with masks recommended for all Americans and likely necessary for more than a year, others see opportunity. According to a blog entry from Etsy, the number of face mask sellers on the artisan marketplace had increased five-fold in the two weeks through Apr. 7, to nearly 20,000 sellers.
Some are wondering whether a fashionable mask trend will eventually hit the sites and then floors of Nordstrom, Urban Outfitters and other apparel sellers. Vanessa Friedman, writing for The New York Times, posits that, assuming this scenario happens, “It is hard to avoid the nagging sense that designers are exploiting fear born during a pandemic for their own ends (and profit) and that consumers are using what is a medical necessity, one that is the most visible representation of the pain and isolation currently shared by so many, in a decorative way.”
Etsy in early March took down thousands of coronavirus-themed t-shirts and mugs with inspirational or comical sayings that it felt exploited the crisis. But scores of t-shirts with comical phrases — such as “Got TP?”, “If You Can Read This You Are Too Close” and “Pour Me A Quarantini” — can be found on Amazon, eBay and other sites.
A Wall Street Journal article exploring whether coronavirus t-shirts were “Funny or Offensive” detailed a tendency to memorialize crisis events in the past and the extent to which laughter can act as a coping mechanism.
- 4.7.20 Update: Mobilizing our Community in Times of Need – Etsy
- Should Masks Be a Fashion Statement? – The New York Times
- Coronavirus T-shirts: Funny or Offensive? – The Wall Street Journal
- Mask sales are suddenly a hot business for home businesses – Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
- Pandemics don’t stop fast fashion: Brands sell face masks during crisis – Targum
- Publix launches initiative to help farmers, feed those in need during pandemic – Publix
- Publix Super Markets Charities donates another $1 million to Feeding America member food banks – Publix
- Denver creatives, home entrepreneurs take on a new role: mask producers – The Denver Post
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Do companies face an ethical dilemma making a profit and chasing sales during crisis times? Are fashionable face masks, coronavirus-themed t-shirts, et al a merchandising opportunity that has more upside or downside for retailers?