A Blog by Jonathan Low


Sep 20, 2020

The Pandemic Line Dance: How People Cautiously Return To Stores

As reports of infection rate declines circulate, people are venturing out to shop more often. But they face lines and demands that masks be worn - and sometimes, conflict with others who either favor masks or scorn them.

Despite the hassles, growing numbers seem determined to see a bit more of the world, though  cognizant another round of shutdowns could be coming. JL

Ruth La Ferla reports in the New York Times:

"Walking into a store has become the novelty, an adrenaline boost and a way of exploring the world outside.” Long waits in line, once rare at luxury boutiques, open-air markets and hair salons, have become a familiar rite of consumption as shoppers file gingerly back into stores. Most wear masks, their long-bottled-up shoppers' enthusiasm finally coming uncorked. Gatekeepers stand ready, tamping down tensions, spritzing customers with hand sanitizer as they make their way inside.“Besides, it’s not like I have somewhere else to be.”
Some people gabbed, some groused; others stood silently, forming a line that snaked around the block, waiting for Century 21, the Lower Manhattan bargain hunters' mecca, to open for business.
It was a scene like many others popping up this summer all across the country: long waits in line, once rare at luxury boutiques, open-air markets and hair salons, have become a familiar rite of consumption as shoppers file gingerly back into stores.
Most wear masks, some crowd shoulder to shoulder; the majority are upbeat, their long-bottled-up shoppers' enthusiasm finally coming uncorked.
“People want a touch of what is the old normal,” said Stacy DeBroff, who monitors consumer habits for Influence Central, a marketing firm in Boston. At the start of the pandemic they shopped online, often out of necessity, but also, for those with deep pockets, as a form of entertainment.
“Now it’s almost as if walking into a store has become the novelty,” DeBroff said, “an adrenaline boost and a way of exploring the world outside.” Long waits, some say, can breed solidarity. “We become a little band of survivors with a grim gallows humor to match,” writes David Andrews in his 2015 pop culture rumination, “Why Does the Other Line Always Move Faster?” “We’re all in this together.”
There is also thrill of suspense. As Andy Warhol once said: “The possibility of never getting in is exciting. But after that, waiting to get in is the most exciting.”
There were no stampedes as customers gathered. But bottlenecks formed as they jostled for entry, recalling the scrum as petitioners pleaded for entry to Studio 54. Now, as during that club’s fabled heyday, gatekeepers stand at the ready, tamping down tensions — and, this time around, spritzing customers with hand sanitizer as they make their way inside.
The Outlets
Rehoboth Beach, Delaware
Not far from the vacation home of Joe Biden, the lines at Tanger Outlets were visible from the Coastal Highway all summer.
On a Monday afternoon in August, 30 people stood in line outside the Nike outlet. One would-be customer, Dev Surprenant, 21, who works at a hardware store, had been waiting since the store opened at 11 a.m.
“This is the longest I’ve waited in a line,” he said, his black mask muffling his words. He was giving it until 2 p.m., but he wasn’t optimistic: The store had only been letting in one person every 20 minutes, he said.
Across the street, the Crocs outlet was admitting 10 shoppers at a time. Denise Woodbury, standing in line with her great-granddaughter Quinn, felt optimistic that she would get in this time around.
“This is our second try with this stay,” Woodbury said. “I did a couple the last time I was down here last month and just gave up.”
Glen Greenwood, 21 and standing behind Woodbury, wore an American flag bandanna as a mask while waiting to return a pair of rainbow tie-dye Crocs. The previous day, he had waited in the same line for 45 minutes to purchase them for his girlfriend.
"She put them on and was like, ‘Well, I can’t fit in these,’ " he said. "And I was like, ‘Well ain’t that great?’ "
Some shoppers retreated to their cars once they registered the wait time. Tracy Putman, 51, was close to the front when she gave up. “I have another store I want to go to, and I want to get out on the beach,” she said.
Next door at Vans, Rylee Wallace, 19, was acting as a bouncer at the Vans outlet. She had been working for the store for three weeks and found herself on line duty frequently, she said. Customers had been irritated, she said, even occasionally cursing her out.
“I don’t think nobody wants to wait three hours just to get into a store,” she said.
The Department Store
New York
An outsize poster in the window announcing “the sale of the century,” prompted shoppers at Century 21 in Lower Manhattan to form a line that wound from Cortland Street around the block to Dey Street. The promise of steep markdowns was a powerful draw.
Shoppers hustling toward the entry the instant the store flung open its doors, were met by Matt McMahon, the gray suited security officer posted out front.
“Easy, easy, no need to rush,” McMahon told them soothingly. “You all will get in.”
Some of them were clearly looking forward to the prospect of adventure. The store, within view of ground zero, survived the 2001 World Trade Center attacks. Unlike the now deserted Oculus complex, which rose in the wreckage, it still hums with activity.
“I haven’t been here in years, not since 9/11,” said Glennis Bell, a supermarket clerk who had made the trek from the Bronx “just out of curiosity.”
The wait didn’t trouble her friend Sandra Gutierrez. “Standing here is one way to get out of the norm,” she said, adding after a beat, “though right now, I guess, this is the norm.”
The New Drive-Through
Plano, Texas
On a sweltering Saturday morning in late August, a pink and orange sky greeted an early-bird line at the Dallas area’s first location of the Filipino fast-food franchise Jollibee.
Around 6 a.m., two hours before opening, Claire and Bill Lin’s Honda idled ahead of 13 other cars. The couple was excited to mark their 21st wedding anniversary with Palabok Fiesta pancit, two buckets of spicy chickenjoy fried chicken, Yumburgers and peach mango fried pies.
“I’m a nurse, he’s a doctor. We’re busy, we don’t eat out much, but we had to come here,” Lin said. “Also, I’m tired of cooking at home!”
Lin is originally from Cebu, Philippines, and settled in Texas in 2001, after two decades in California. She wanted to see how Jolibee’s offerings measured up to the homemade feasts that are a staple of Filipino gatherings.
Shay Senters and her daughter Nyah, 10, had driven by several times before deciding to brave the line, which is limited to in-vehicle drive-through for now.
“It’s been so hot, so you have to run the AC,” Senters said. “And I saw someone break down while they waited in line. So we came up with a strategy — we’re going to get up early Saturday. We brought our blankets.”
Nyah also brought her favorite stuffed animal, a dog named Cuddles.
Locals have flocked to Jolibee in large numbers during the pandemic, seeking both the novelty of a meal out and the familiarity of a menu that references family recipes.
“It’s comfort food,” Senters said. “Seriously, it’s comforting for people who have been waiting for a piece of home. I’ve been on a plant-based journey for the last three months, and I’m breaking it for this.”
“We have nowhere else to go, nothing else to do,” she continued. “We’re still in quarantine, so this is like a little adventure.”
The Cosmetics Store
Emeryville, California
On the Sunday before Labor Day, Sephora shoppers lined up for entry were growing impatient under the direct rays.
“If I’m not in in the next 20 minutes, I’m gone,” said Mallory Sager, 33, of Oakland, California. “It’s all a risk-reward balance.”
Sager said she was shopping for makeup and a stronger deodorant — she didn’t want “to be stinky” in the heat. There were only a dozen people in front of her, but progress was slow with store occupancy restricted; in 10 minutes, she had only moved 6 feet.
The heat wave and smoke from the recent wildfires made her question coming, she said, but the coronavirus pandemic was not a big factor.
“You can’t live your life in total fear,” she said.
The Luxury Boutiques
New York
Once stores like Chanel, Dior and Louis Vuitton, those temples of high-end consumption lining East 57th Street near Fifth Avenue, invited patrons to enter and browse with a kind of hushed reverence. But on a recent weekend, those stores and others beckoned with the brassy allure of theme park attractions.
The lines that start forming midmorning each day outside Chanel do not seem to faze Neil Humphrey, the store’s smartly uniformed doorman. The crowds are manageable, even civil, Humphrey said. “This is nothing we can’t handle.”
Down the street at Vuitton, shoppers in T-shirts and shorts, some sporting the logos of their favorite brands, chattered and joshed, willing to put up with waits of 20 minutes or more. A few were moved by curiosity; others were content to idly pass the time.
Sharon Griffith, who has spent much of lockdown shopping online, was looking forward to checking out wares firsthand. “I like this brand, so I don’t mind the wait,” said Griffith, 30, who works in the emergency department of Con Edison. “Besides, it’s not like I have somewhere else to be.”
The Farmers' Market
Santa Fe, New Mexico
“Right when COVID hit here, we had to make many changes,” said Debbie Burns, the chief executive officer of the Santa Fe Farmers' Market on the last Saturday in August. Vendors and visitors had to wear masks. Produce would be pre-portioned and sometimes pre-bagged. There would be none of the usual musicians, canvassers and informational tables.
“There’s no more socializing or gathering at the market,” said Burns, who immediately before being interviewed was circulating through the crowd in an orange vest, gesturing at guests and vendors to pull their masks up. “We’ve had to work at 25% capacity,” she said, “normally at this time of year our market is packed.”
At about 9:30 a.m., the milling crowds of seasons past had been replaced with fast-moving lines. Cars queued up on Chili Line Lane to pick up shares from the market’s CSA, which last year had 26 members and this year reached 287.
“Normally, you’d see people running up and down with Bernie Sanders signs,” said Apollonio Garcia, 53, as he waited to buy radishes. “Now, it’s kind of like any other place. We’re getting in and getting out.”
Matt Romero, 62, who with his wife, Emily, runs Romero Farms in Dixon, New Mexico, about 50 miles north of Santa Fe, said there are fewer people coming overall, but business is still good. “It’s like, if you have a line, you have a line. It means you’re not running out of customers,” Romero said.
Leaving the farmers' market, one might have noticed another line, outside the nearby REI that had, by midmorning, reached its new maximum capacity. A greeter could be heard telling the crowd about a sale, and apologizing in advance: “We haven’t had camp fuel for days, and we don’t know when we’ll get more.”
The Furniture Store
Emeryville, California
Hundreds of shoppers braved a triple-digit heat wave and smoky skies to queue up outside Ikea on the first Sunday in September.
Rows of metal fences had been erected to ensure the line snaked around the building in a socially distant fashion, but most people were able to fit in the shade of a building overhang, and spirits were relatively high as the line moved reasonably fast — only about 50 had to wait at any point.
“It’s not bad,” said Jennifer Oscarson, 62, of Walnut Creek, California, who said she needed to buy chairs for the yurt she was building in the Sierra foothills. “This is a lot cooler than where I live.”
The Secondhand Haven
New York
On a swampy August afternoon, Arpana Rayamajhi stood gamely in line outside Beacon’s Closet on West 13th Street. Rayamajhi, 32, a jewelry designer and acting student, had spent most of that week combing her closets, weeding out items she hoped to offload.
“There are few stores right now accepting consignments,” she said. “This one is.”
Living in New York taught her to dodge lines, but during the pandemic she has made a few exceptions. “New York is always so crowded,” she said, resignedly. “Whether you are going to buy water, or just stopping at a pharmacy, you end up spending a long time.”
The wait was no issue for Rasheed Bailey, a 19-year-old student at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Curiosity drove him, he said, and a yen for cool clothes. His friend Patrick Waterman had bagged a sumptuous looking peach-colored sweater elsewhere that day; he was keeping an eye out at Beacon’s for similarly tasty finds.
A few feet away, Isaiah Latimer, a 23-year-old cosmetology student, was just as acquisitive. He was scouting for accessories, he said, and shoes to go with each of his new outfits. But there was an emotional payoff as well.
“With this pandemic and everything that’s happening, I wait in line just to feel some type of normal,” Latimer said. To combat isolation, “there are little things we can do, like buying a new lotion or perfume,” he said.
“Shopping makes life feel like it’s still going on.”
And, of Course, the Ice Cream Shop
Kansas City, Missouri
On a late-August Friday evening, as the sun set on a nearly 100-degree day, the line at Betty Rae’s Ice Cream in the River Market neighborhood was moving quickly. A cup of lavender honey for her. A waffle cone perfectly overflowing with rocky road for him. A sugar cone of peach pie for Mom. Masks were worn by all inside, but quickly removed to dig into purchased confections in the open air.
“Lines have become more of a thing,” said Caleb Presley, 24. He and his wife, Paige, live two blocks up and are regulars at Betty Rae’s. The shop has temporarily closed twice because of COVID scares. Both times, all employees returned negative tests and the shop reopened.
“We’ve just been trying to keep our favorite restaurants open,” Presley, 25, said. “The town has really rallied.”
There are no samples this season and fewer customers than Betty Rae’s would expect in a normal summer. But that isn’t stopping customers from lining up in a queue that goes out the rainbow entryway and around the block — socially distanced of course.
Corpus Christi, Texas
For weeks, the parking lot at Iced Cube, a shop serving Mexican shaved ice treats known as raspas, has been filled with vehicles waiting for a Mangonada: mango sorbet topped with mango, drenched in sweet and spicy red chamoy sauce, dusted with Tajín and garnished with a tamarind straw.
“I like to make them as big and as pretty as I can,” said the shop’s acting manager, Riena Scott, her hands stained red. “They’ve been here so long, they deserve to get what they waited for.”
Also on the menu are the Parti With Cardi, which features Flaming Hot Cheetos and sour strings, and the A$AP Rocky, a raspa topped with bananas, strawberries, whipped cream and a whole ice cream sandwich. Many visitors admit to being enticed by photos of the elaborate desserts on Instagram and Facebook.
Javier and Monica Gomez ventured out from nearby Annaville in their SUV, seeking some brightly colored edible excitement.
“There’s not much to do nowadays,” Gomez said. The couple had passed by Iced Cube a few times before but kept driving, discouraged by the long line.
"I was like, ‘Nah, I can’t wait. I have kids in the car,’ " Gomez said.
This time they lucked out with about a 30-minute wait, during which Gomez contemplated the menu. “I’m feeling like a little spice, so I’ll probably get the one with Hot Cheetos,” he said.
Nantucket, Massachusetts
There’s a line every summer at the Juice Bar, a homemade ice cream shop across the street from the Whaling Museum, but this summer there’s also a rope divider and a QR code that points to a digital menu. On a Wednesday night in late August, the line stretched to the end of the block and across the street, where one employee took orders while another reminded customers to wear masks and keep 6 feet apart.
Danielle Shreck, 29, who was visiting from Cambridge, Massachusetts, on her honeymoon, estimated the line was about twice as long as when she visited last summer. But the wait is worth it, she said.
“I will do a lot to get a good scoop of ice cream,” Shreck said.
“It’s been pretty easygoing,” her husband Matt Leibowitz, 29, said. It was their third consecutive night waiting in the line. “People don’t always follow the marks, but I feel like people are pretty well aware and trying to do their best.”

Marc Berman, 52, who was visiting Nantucket with his family from Westchester County, New York, thought the longer lines had actually improved the customer experience.
“We were just saying we actually like what the Juice Bar is doing. They’ve actually made it easier to order,” he said. His son Noah, 13, agreed.
Pajorn Drysdale, 16, a seasonal employee, has been working hard to keep customers safe. “They gave us a quick scenario of what we’re supposed to do, and we watched a few videos and stuff like that, we saw it, we embraced it,” he said.
He said he does occasionally face customers who try to defy the store’s rules. If that’s the case, he said, “I’m not going to assist you with anything.”


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