One State Clamps Down on Big-Box Retail Amid COVID-19

Patrycja Malinowska
Associate Director - Content, P2PI
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It was not an April Fools' Day joke when news surfaced that Vermont is going further to curtail retailers than any other state to date in its efforts to increase social distancing during the pandemic. The state is asking large retailers to comply with an order to stop sales of all “non-essential” items to decrease store traffic.

Retailers such as Walmart, Target, Costco and even Best Buy, Home Depot and Lowe’s are affected. Items identified as non-essential include art and craft supplies, beauty products, carpet and flooring, apparel, consumer electronics, books, movies, music, furniture, home and garden products, jewelry, paint, photo services, sports equipment and toys.

“We are directing these stores to put public health first and help us reduce the number of shoppers by requiring on-line ordering, delivery and curbside pickup whenever possible, and by stopping the sale of non-essential items,” said Vermont’s Agency of Commerce and Community Development Secretary Lindsay Kurrle in a media release issued March 30.

Specifically, the state is requiring stores to restrict access to non-essential goods by closing aisles or portions of the store (including showrooms and garden centers) or removing items from the floor, and to only offer these items for delivery or curbside pickup “to the extent possible,” according to the release. It is unclear how the new policy will be enforced but local reports indicate Target has posted signs around the nonessentials in the one store it operates in the state, encouraging people to only buy necessities, and Walmart has closed or roped off certain areas of the six Vermont stores it operates while also adding signs informing customers of the new order.

The release also linked to guidelines for retailers that are allowed to continue in-person operations which also include offering curbside pickup or home delivery, if possible.

While Vermont isn’t a major sales contributor for the retail industry, the development would become more significant if more states adopt similar policies. At least one city in Massachusetts has implemented similar measures, according to a social media post by Chicopee police thanking Walmart, Home Depot and BJ’s for working with the Chicopee Board of Health to block non-essential aisles and items in order to cut down on unnecessary roaming. 

Simultaneously, some big retailers are expanding their own pandemic policies to further curb store traffic. Costco began limiting the number of family members allowed to enter a store together to a maximum of two.

The Home Depot, which has placed social distancing markers at counters and signage throughout stores, began limiting the number of shoppers inside a store at any given time. (A policy Best Buy had also briefly enacted before shifting exclusively to curbside pickup.) Home Depot also said it will eliminate major promotions during what is usually this channel's busiest season of the year, including its annual Spring Black Friday sale, to avoid high levels of traffic. Meanwhile, channel rival Lowe's has also placed signage urging social distancing throughout stores but is pressing on with its own Spring Black Friday sale and kicked off the nearly two-week event on April 2. 

"While some retailers have taken steps to eliminate value pricing, we recognize the importance of continuing to offer value to our customers in this time of economic uncertainty," Lowe's said in a statement. "Affordability matters now more than ever. We encourage customers to practice safe social distancing and leverage our many fulfillment options."