- The Washington Times - Monday, June 14, 2021

Tuxedo rentals at Men’s Wearhouse are nearing 2019 levels after hardly any event business in February, Sam’s Club is selling more party supplies, and librarians in South Carolina are “practically giddy” after lifting mask rules this month and seeing children come for story time.

“For some of them, it’s the first time they’ve been inside the library for over a year,” said Melanie Huggins, executive director of the Richland Library system based in Columbia. “To see people in the building on a more regular basis, feeling comfortable, not wearing masks — it definitely is a sign we’re moving in the right direction.”

A lot of the talk of post-lockdown life is about big-ticket pleasures. Americans are filling ballparks, Broadway is staging a September comeback and travel agents are booking dream vacations.

Other signals that everyday life is returning are quieter — even mundane.

Churches and libraries are reopening across America, restoring community anchors and lifelines for job seekers. Big retailers such as Walmart report upticks of in-store traffic and sales tied to restaurant operations and social gatherings.

“My optimism is higher than it was at the beginning of the year for several reasons. In the U.S., economic stimulus is clearly having an impact, but we also see encouraging signs that our customers want to get out and shop,” Walmart President and CEO C. Douglas McMillon said in a mid-May earnings call.

Jiffy Lube said more vehicles are coming through its service bays as Americans get back on the road. The company reported a significant spike before Memorial Day weekend and an uptick earlier this year when consumers received federal relief checks.

People heading out also are increasing beverage sales.

IWSR Drinks Market Analysis says the alcohol beverage market “is showing positive signs of recovery, and is projected to grow in volume by 2.9% by the end of 2021.”

The change coincides with a vaccine rollout that has reached over half of the U.S. population. More than 42% of all Americans are fully vaccinated. Average daily new cases of COVID-19 have dipped below 15,000 for the first time since the start of the crisis in March 2020.

President Biden wants at least 70% of U.S. adults to receive at least one vaccine dose by July 4 — the date he circled as the entry point to normalcy in America.

He might not reach that goal because the rollout is slowing dramatically and the share of partially vaccinated adults sits around 64%. Still, the nation preempted the president with a clear pivot to regular life ahead of Memorial Day. Federal officials relaxed mask rules, and governors lifted onerous business restrictions.

Simon Property Group, a top owner of shopping, dining, entertainment and mixed-use properties, reported an uptick in sales and foot traffic at its malls and other sites during the first quarter.

“Our business has substantially improved after addressing the impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic including significantly restrictive governmental orders as evidenced by our improved profitability and cash flow growth, increasing shopper traffic, increasing retailer sales, and leasing momentum across our portfolio,” President and CEO David Simon told investors last month.

Some shoppers are finding higher prices at the stores.

Consumer prices surged 5% in May from a year ago, the highest annual rise in inflation since 2008, according to government data. As COVID-19 outbreaks ease and demand increases, prices are rising for a variety of goods and services. Supply-chain bottlenecks are contributing to shortages of items such as semiconductor chips and lumber, fueling questions about whether the U.S. faces runaway inflation or a transient trend as supply chains reset with normal demand.

Republicans want to rein in government spending and rebalance monetary policy, but the White House said volatility will subside.

“Yes, it is true the prices for AIRLINE TICKETS and USED CARS were up a great deal in May of 2021 over where they were in May of 2020 — when everyone was coping with the worst of the pandemic!” Mr. Biden’s chief of staff, Ron Klain, tweeted Thursday.

John Tighe, executive vice president at Tailored Brands, said customers won’t face higher costs as Men’s Wearhouse, Jos. A. Bank and other parts of the company’s portfolio that serve men returning to the office and celebrating weddings again.

“We are being careful. People are out there and need to get back to life, and we are not raising prices,” he told The Washington Times.

Mr. Tighe said the return to normalcy couldn’t be clearer at Tailored Brands stores, which are known for tuxedo rentals but also sell office wear and other clothes off the rack.

“As the world has opened up and vaccines have become more available and more distributed, life is getting back to normal and people are partaking in the events that are special in their lives,” he said. “Our business has ramped up significantly from where we were.”

He said prom season was wild because many schools held impromptu celebrations, but stores managed to keep up. Now, customers are coming in “like crazy” for the summer wedding season or looking for new suits as they return to work and might not be the same size as they were at the start of the pandemic.

He said the company is focusing on post-lockdown trends, including an emphasis on “performance” wear. This type of clothing offers some stretch for people who got used to dressing comfortably while working from home. Casual styles can go only so far, however, so neckties, dress shirts and jackets will remain in stock as offices navigate reopening strategies.

“I’m pretty sure they’re not going to wear sweatpants to work, so they’re going to need to know how to dress again,” Mr. Tighe said.

Also making a comeback is in-person church attendance. A Gallup poll in May found that 20% of Americans said they went to a church, synagogue or mosque in person, compared with 10% who attended services remotely. It was a profound change from May 2020, when the split was 28% remote to 3% in-person.

The lines crossed around January as the vaccine campaign entered its second month. The trend continued steadily in subsequent weeks.

The Denver Public Library system had to shift to mobile operations for much of the past year, but its branches reopened this spring. It plans to open meeting rooms this summer.

“There’s definitely an excitement about these free public spaces being available again,” said Michelle Jeske, executive director of the Denver Public Library system and president of the Public Library Association.

She said there is a “huge need, with people out of work and needing government services.”

Libraries serve as lifelines for people who need help with their resumes or job-search tools if they don’t have laptops and internet service at home. Denver offered laptop stations outside during lockdowns and made the spaces more comfortable with propane heaters. Still, it was a relief to bring them back inside.

“It’s really good for customers and staff,” Ms. Jeske said. “There were many days it was too cold. We’d have to say, ‘Not today.’”

The Richland Library system in South Carolina has offered some level of indoor service since August but is steadily returning to full operations. It also no longer needs to take temperatures at the door or police COVID-19 rules.

“I’ve got to say, people are so excited to come back in and feel some sense of normalcy,” Ms. Huggins said. “The library is so many things to so many people.”

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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