The early days of the coronavirus pandemic were marked by a run on toilet paper and baking supplies, the sort of necessities and comforts driven by nation-wide stay-at-home orders. But that focus on domestic comforts may be shifting, with retail trends pointing to rising anxieties among Americans as the pandemic drags on.
Sales of personal safety devices such as pepper spray as well as solar-powered mobile phone chargers are on the rise, according to several retail sources. And while spending on travel and restaurants remains depressed, demand for RV rentals is surging, says Bill Parsons, group president of data and analytics and international at Envestnet|Yodlee. That indicates consumers are willing to travel as long as they can ensure their safety from the coronavirus. The shift in spending comes as Americans are venturing out of their homes, even taking summer vacations, but seeking to shield themselves amid rising anxieties over everything from the virus itself to the perception that crime may be on the rise. Even though crime remains low — and in fact dropped in March as people remained indoors — anxieties have been sparked by unrest in cities such as Portland, Oregon over police brutality and systemic racism.
“It’s a sense of unease that everybody has,” says Kristin Cook, senior editor at retail deal site Ben’s Bargains, which saw a spike in demand for pepper spray and solar-powered chargers at the start of August. “For a while there it felt like everyone sort of decided we were over [the pandemic], but we’re seeing the anxiety-type purchases ticking up, as people realize this is will be more of a long haul.” But it’s not only protests and riots that are prompting interest in personal-safety devices. People are again venturing out-of-doors, but are more likely to be on their own due to social-distancing recommendations. That’s spurring purchases of pepper spray and personal alarms.
“People want to go into nature, where it might not be as crowded,” notes Ali Ferber Peters, who co-founded the personal alarm company Birdie last year. “Carrying an alarm gives people confidence.”
Her alarm business had its slowest month in March, Peters recounts. But sales have grown “exponentially” this summer, she says, with sales as much as tripling each month since May. Those increases are driven by mothers buying the alarms for their daughters, as well as young women buying the brightly colored devices — which emit a 130-decibel alarm — for themselves.
Consumers are responding to the continuing uncertainty of the pandemic as well as anxieties over future events including the Nov. 3 presidential election, says Mace Security International CEO Gary Medved. He says the Cleveland-based company is contemplating adding a third shift to its factory to keep up with demand for its Mace-branded pepper spray, which had introduced new colors and packaging in the months before the pandemic shut down the economy.
The sales boost “is not letting up,” Medved says. “The last few months have told people, ‘Be prepared.’”