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Retailers uncover a $2B industry with face masks

From Gap to Louis Vuitton, merchants turn reusable cloth masks meant to protect wearers against the coronavirus into fashion fare, with prices ranging from modest to blingy.

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As of Feb. 2, 2021, masks are required on planes, buses, trains, and other public transportation traveling into, within, or out of the U.S. and in U.S. transportation hubs such as airports and stations. Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

When it comes to reusable fabric face masks, plenty of retailers and fashion brands have bet big on consumers who are looking to play it safe. 

With the pandemic causing the once-drab face mask to evolve from standard gear worn by medical staff to a must-have item for the general public, companies ranging from mass-market retailers like Target to athletic brands such as Under Armour to haute couture providers like Louis Vuitton rapidly established new product lines last year, turning reusable face masks into a multi-billion-dollar industry.

The Gap Inc. has adopted face masks as an unexpected revenue stream. The company estimated in March 2021 that face masks accounted for 3% of 2020 revenue, or about $414 million. Speaking on the company’s March 4 earnings call, Gap Inc. CEO Sonia Syngal referred to face masks as both “a new top category” and one of the company’s “big product bets.”

“(Finding reuseable face masks) was kind of a scavenger hunt at the beginning, but the retailers responded,” said Jessica Ramírez, New York-based retail research analyst at Jane Hali & Associates. “It became an added category within the accessories themselves.”

A model wears a face mask produced by Gap Inc. (Photo courtesy of Gap Inc.)

Americans spent approximately $2.4 billion on reusable masks last year, said Neil Saunders, retail analyst and managing director of GlobalData Retail. That amount is more than double the $1.16 billion that Saunders projected in August 2020 for U.S. reusable face masks sales for the year ending May 2021. By comparison, American consumers are expected to spend $1.9 million on men’s socks in 2021, according to Statista.

“Masks have become much more design-led,” Saunders said. “We’ve seen many more adjustable masks, masks with elastic straps, and more masks with openings where you can put in disposable filters within the fabric of the masks. People have innovated.”

It’s a far cry from last spring, when U.S. communities were grappling with stay-at-home orders and medical professionals and front-line workers were decrying the lack of personal protective equipment as they treated Covid-19 patients and kept essential businesses operating. 

Many entrepreneurs jumped into the fray out of a combination of public duty and financial opportunity; the most visible illustration of this trend was the influx of face masks being sold on Etsy, the e-commerce website specializing in selling handmade craft and vintage items. For the quarter that ended June 30, 2020, 110,000 sellers sold $346 million in face masks on Etsy — almost 13% of the revenue generated by the site that quarter, the company reported in August 2020. 

“These are really big numbers,” Etsy CEO Josh Silverman said on the company’s second-quarter earnings call in August. “It’s hard to wrap your head around them, but to give you some sense of scale, that’s enough masks to stretch all the way from New York to London.”

A selection of face masks that have been mass produced by Gap Inc. (Photo courtesy of Gap Inc.)

Traditional retailers took notice, as did the fashion press. In addition to the Gap — which sells masks for as low as $3 for a three-pack — Nordstrom, Target, Urban Outfitters and Guess were among mass merchandisers offering reusable face masks on their websites and in their stores. Among the more specialized retailers that debuted face mask lines were athletic and workout-wear specialists Under Armour and Lululemon. The fabrics included cotton, satin, silk, polyester and spandex; attachment types included adjustable straps, ties and elastic loops.

“Because everything was on lockdown, you couldn’t sell a lot of inventory, so (retailers) pivoted those businesses,” Ramírez said.

“It’s basically a bit of material and elastic,” Saunders said. “For a company like the Gap, that can’t be expensive to make at all.”

Higher-end specialty brands such as Buck Mason and Rag & Bone also jumped into the fray. Buck Mason sells two lines of face masks in two colors each, with five-packs priced at $20 to $30. Rag & Bone sells cotton and satin masks in three-packs for $55. And on the higher end of the price spectrum, Louis Vuitton sells its monogram-patterned knit face mask for $355. It includes a silk pouch.

As a result, the fashion press has offered its take on the subject. Vogue, in its April issue, promoted “Cloth Masks to Shop Now,” while in March, Cosmopolitan pitched “31 Super Cute Face Masks Worth Adding to Your Collection.”

Gracie Lynn, 4, of Lititz, Pa., wears an Easter Bunny face mask to visit the Easter Bunny at the Reading Public Museum in Reading, Pa., on April 2, 2021. (Photo by Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images)

Moving forward, Etsy, whose sellers sold more than $740 million in face masks last year, says the product’s growth has helped lure shoppers to other products. In February, Etsy Chief Financial Officer Rachel Glaser estimated that half of the 3 million people who bought face masks on Etsy in third quarter 2020 returned the following quarter to buy other products. 

As for sales of the masks themselves, those are expected to fall this year as the number of vaccinated people rises and mask mandates are loosened. U.S. face mask sales could fall to about $1.5 billion in 2021, according to Saunders, who remains impressed by some retailers’ approach to the product line.

“The luxury players’ prices are a bit absurd, but they’ve taken it to heart and made some well-designed masks,” Saunders said. “They’ve turned what could’ve been something functionally mundane and turned it into something with a little bit of excitement.”

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Danny King

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