Memo: DTC’s COVID Advantage

There’s a movie scene that you may remember. The family that hailed from the North Shore of Chicago ran through the airport with ease, leaving their rambunctious son behind. With just 45 minutes to travel from Winnetka, Illinois, to their plane’s departing gate, they succeeded in driving 30 minutes and navigating one of America’s busiest airports in under fifteen (and with all of their luggage checked). For those who would grow up to watch the film after 2001, there was an element that was missing at Chicago’s O’Hare airport: the inconvenience of modern airport security. Until 2001, airports were more like malls. Traffic could flow in and out freely. Small shops and restaurants had visitors who were not ticketed for flights. Security was scant, and the performative aspect of security barely existed.

Until September 11, 2001, a 20-year-old independent firm called Argenbright Security was America’s largest security screening firm. With nearly 25,000 employees and 44 domestic airports, Argenbright was about half of the size of today’s Transportation Security Administration.

As the head of the company whose screeners worked at two of the three airports targeted on Sept. 11 — Newark and Washington’s Dulles — Argenbright quickly became a scapegoat in the aftermath of the terror attacks. On Oct. 12, 2001, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft publicly announced that parent company “Argenbright Holdings continues to violate laws that protect the safety of Americans who travel by commercial airlines.” [1]

The business soon disappeared after the conception of the Transportation Security Administration. An article in the Las Vegas Sun, just one year later, noted:

Argenbright is nearly gone from U.S. airports, all but forced out of the business by a string of security breaches. [2]

When the federal government chose to assume the security of America’s airports, the execution of the strategy seemed to happen overnight. By the end of 2002, in just one year, TSA was a force of 60,000 employees. Between September 11 and November 19 of 2001, the way that America interacted with airports changed forever. Gone were the days of walking a family member to his or her gate. TSA’s approach to human-powered detection meant that entry lines were slower and earlier arrivals were necessary. The small changes added up: identification requirements, shoe removal, screened baggage, a ban on liquids, removing electronics from all bags, removing belts and sweaters, the enhanced pat-downs, and the end of welcome committees.

If air travel tracked an industry-wide net promoter score (NPS), the first pain point raised would be the sense of intrusion that you endure whenever you travel commercially. The TSA does commandeer a number of weapons (knives, etc) each year along with $649 drivers that they categorize as weapons. You can retrieve neither upon completing the screening process. Yes: if you brought a single golf club with you, it’s now an agent’s property. Meanwhile, over my previous 70 trips, TSA has ignored the small knife on my keychain while removing a mid-sized bottle of skin moisturizer – nearly every time. While TSA’s role is important, their process is mostly performative. And brick and mortar retailers are beginning to adopt many of these attributes.

I’m not TSA. I’m a bartender. [3]

Today’s retail industry is beginning to resemble the year that followed 9/11. In many states, shutdown orders have lifted and retailers and restaurants have begun to reopen. As the economy continues to reopen, wage workers are doubling as security personnel. Many are having to enforce the use of face coverings and social distancing protocols. And some retailers have taken it one step further. In 2PM’s spring 2020 memo, The Dust Settles, I wrote about changes in travel customs in the context of retail and performative safety. 

The next time that I’d fly out of Providence, Rhode Island, it would be to see my family for Thanksgiving 2001. By then, everything was different. As a global culture, we moved 20 years in just two months. The new customs were tolerable because we thought that they would be temporary. They weren’t. The new customs set like concrete.

In Pittsburgh’s Shadyside neighborhood, the Patagonia store that once featured a capacity for 75 guests now caps their in-store traffic at ten customers at a time. After a 10-15 minute wait, the store associate checks the customer’s mask and then asks to wash and then sanitize hands. To enter the store, the associate explains their safety protocol over 90 seconds to each person entering the store. You are to self-report any item of clothing that you touch so that it can be removed, steamed, and returned to its original safe state. There are no longer try-ons in the store.

In Nashville’s 12th Avenue area: Madewell, Outdoor Voices, Draper James, Imogene + Willie, and other brands have employed similar strategies. With the exception of big box retailers, you will find that these safety strategies are more common than not. It has degraded the brick and mortar shopping experience. And it is pushing consumers to other channels.

Air travel was a five star experience when it began. The economy class did not exist prior to the 1950’s and neither did budget airlines. Amenities like food, alcohol, and entertainment were plentiful – relative to its era. The interiors of cabins were well appointed and the space and home comforts were notable. In many ways, this sounds like fine retail prior to COVID.

The evolution of post-COVID retail involves many of the strategies that the TSA employs to assure air travelers of their safety. Though some of it has yielded positive results, the vast majority of it is performative. For every bottle of lotion thwarted, a sharp object or a lighter passes through. But travel does seem safe and that is the goal. The question becomes, can brick and mortar retail suffer the same degradation of and still maintain its place in American consumerism? While 48% of American consumers travel through the air, nearly every adult consumer visits a store.

The airline industry is well aware that customers are fed up with the performative arts of airport security. Retail customers will grow tired of the performance much sooner. For affluent travelers, there are more options than ever to include TSA PreCheck and Clear. Any digital tool that clears the commitment to added time and steeper inconvenience has grown in appeal. Notice this parallel:

Clear was born of disaster. Founded in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Clear — originally known as Verified Identity Pass — rode a wave of new funding from Congress allocated to secure American airports from terrorist plots. That history isn’t lost on the company. In its recent presentation on Health Pass, Clear compared coronavirus’s impact to the terrorist attacks of 9/11. [4]

There are analogs for the parallel that I am going to make. Like digital verification has become the patchwork for a broken screening strategy throughout America’s airports, digital commerce will become the antidote for the burdens placed on brick and mortar retailers to perform safety. The direct-to-consumer industry is positioned to benefit from these new safety measures. Customers prefer the joys of the physical retail experience. It’s how we’re wired to consume.

While online retail is but a fraction of the aggregate retail economy, this shift (one with no end in sight) will be a catalyst for its growth. When the dust settles, brands will see more of their business shifting to online channels. Retail is supposed to be mindless, enjoyable, and efficient. Those measures are no longer attributed to the physical spaces. With better online store performance and conversion tools like SHOP Pay, Google Pay, and Apple Pay: those attributes are assigned to physical retail’s digital equivalents.

In the previous decades, air travel democratized. It proved that what was inaccessible could eventually become common. COVID is accelerating the adoption of what was inaccessible to many consumers: eCommerce. Digital is becoming the new physical.

Report by Web Smith | Art: Alex Remy | Editor: Grace Clarke | About 2PM 

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