When the pandemic hit the U.S. last year, companies of all stripes quickly pivoted to meet the enormous demand for masks, both for humanitarian reasons and as a new source of revenue amid the catastrophic business climate. It was the brisk business to be in, until the CDC’s recent decision to relax PPE guidelines caused a precipitous drop in demand.
Now business owners that relied on mask sales are changing course once again–and drawing on the experience of the past year to plan what comes next.
“We were a little bit surprised with the abruptness of the announcement. And we weren’t the only ones,” says David Billstorm, the CEO of Kitsbow, a North Carolina-based direct-to-consumer maker of cycling apparel that began selling face masks during the pandemic. He estimates that the company has sold $2 million worth of the $25 masks since rolling them out last March. After holding strong for the first few months of 2021 though, he says, mask sales immediately fell the week after the CDC’s May 13 decision. In response, the company has cut down on production.
Businesses similarly report a decline in consumers’ interest in mask advertisements. A spokesman for New York City-based Proper Cloth says ads for the direct-to-consumer apparel brand’s face masks on Instagram, Google, and Facebook have received drastically less engagement in the wake of the new CDC guidelines, leading to an estimated 50 to 60 percent drop in sales.
In all, after generating $5.6 billion in 2020 revenue, the global consumer face mask market is expected to shrink significantly, according to a report by Research and Markets. The report estimates a negative 39.8 percent compound annual growth rate by 2025.
While mask producers anticipated a dip in demand as the pandemic ends, some believe that individuals will continue to wear masks as an everyday precaution, or during flu and wildfire seasons. “We saw mask sales decline in April and they’ve since dropped a lot from the peak, but many customers are still buying them and we expect masks to continue to be an important product through the end of the year,” says Seph Skerritt, the founder and CEO of Proper Cloth.
The decision of some entrepreneurs to produce masks during the pandemic offers a mini case study in how you pivot a business, proving valuable for reasons beyond just revenue. Billstrom notes that without the mask operation, he would have been forced to lay off some of his employees. At a time when many people cut back on luxury purchases like cycling apparel, Kitsbow’s staff was busy producing masks for first responders.
“We went from talking about layoffs on a Tuesday to making prototypes on a Thursday,” Billstrom says.
Other business owners say that the masks were a powerful tool to attract new customers to their websites and other products. A few companies even grew as a result of their mask venture. Ellen Bennett, the CEO of Hedley & Bennett, a maker of cooking aprons and apparel, says the company last year hired more full-time and temporary employees, and began using new partners, vendors, and suppliers, in part thanks to the demand for its face masks.
The pandemic forced companies to be more agile and adaptable to challenges. It also provided exposure to new audiences and inspiration to head in different directions–even aside from masks. Bennett, for example, says that prior to the pandemic, Hedley & Bennett was primarily a B2B company catering to the restaurant industry. With much of the U.S. restaurant industry shut down during the pandemic, the business began focusing on consumers instead. Luckily, many people embraced home cooking as a hobby during the lockdown.
Harold Robison, the founder of San Diego-based sock business Pacific Manufacturing, says the company was able to pivot to masks in a week last March, making them from the material used for its existing products. While the demand for socks picked back up in September, selling several million masks helped Robison realize that the company could explore different avenues.
“Though we’ve gone back to our primary business of socks and apparel, we’ve been expanding on that a lot more for existing customers to all different types of accessories,” Robison says. “I’ve learned that I shouldn’t feel restricted to ‘my lane.'”