While it’s hard to point to many silver linings of the pandemic from a retail perspective, one has surfaced that several manufacturers, and even retailers, have taken advantage of facemasks, in all shapes and forms, as a new, fast-selling SKU to the retail arsenal.

Aside from a handful of companies already dedicated to the neck- and face-covering category, before the pandemic not many companies gave facemasks a second glance when it came to helping the bottom line at retail. But all that changed when mask mandates ensued, everywhere from restaurants to ski resorts. And even though some mask restrictions might be waning, with the ongoing Delta surge, many companies are still seeing sales rise. And the stigma of masks has received a facelift as well, with balaclavas and other traditional face coverings are becoming part of skiers and riders’ kits alongside skis, boots, poles, and helmets.

“With increased sales in facemasks and balaclavas, we saw a 132 percent increase in sales in the last 18 months in our ‘headwear’ category,” said Steve Osborn, general manager of online and brick and mortar retailer Evo Gear. “Face masks made up 25 percent of that growth and our balaclava and neck gaiter sales more than doubled.”

Osborn added that while they sold their own neck gaiters for a while within the company’s private-label brand, “for face masks specifically, we focused on what we could secure from our brand partners.” The top-sellers unit-wise from a brand perspective he added, were masks from Outdoor Research and Helly Hansen. “The category has had high unit volume but isn’t a huge revenue driver overall due to the lower price points,” he said. “They’re a big revenue driver in that category for us but not compared to other accessories, hardgoods or softgoods.”

One company capitalizing on the trend early was Colorado face-covering-maker Phunkshun Wear, which has since ridden the COVID wave enough to become the official facemask company for such ski resorts like Steamboat, Winter Park and newly named Palisades Tahoe (formerly Squaw Valley).

CEO Jason Badgley said that while sales definitely rose because of COVID, it took time. “In March 2020, with all the shutdowns occurring, sales slumped across the industry,” he said. “A month later when the CDC recommended cloth face coverings, sales picked up, but not for our primary product, which is ski/snowboard facemasks.”

So they pivoted into making masks, especially for the mandates. “With so many resorts requiring face coverings, there was unprecedented demand. You needed them to ride lifts, go out to dinner and get rentals,” he said. “So, face coverings of all kinds, including non-medical PPE and ski/snowboard masks, sold well across all channels.”

The company also started developing a few new SKU specifically for the category. “Before the CDC recommendation, we started to develop non-medical PPE cloth face coverings, and after many iterations, we were able to make a comfortable, multi-play, sustainable one,” Badgley said. “But it took time. And without the recommendation, we didn’t feel comfortable releasing them. But after the recommendation came, we were able to quickly pivot and start producing them, after investing in and rearranging our manufacturing facility to accommodate workplace guidelines. We called them our PH masks, standing for personal hygiene.”

Badgely added that the company’s multi-ply Mistral Double Tube is currently its top-selling product for this winter, and it has manufacturing plans to replenish the supply several times over the season.

But gauging inventory needs is difficult. “It’s been a challenge, from the labor shortage impacting the production of domestically milled fabrics to other brands panic-buying USA-milled materials when they can’t get imported fabric,” he said. “Delays are happening everywhere. So, we’re prioritizing filling retailer orders and building back stock for them, with our D2C business coming in second.”

Other larger companies have been able to rely on better economies of scale. Even though they didn’t make medical-oriented masks before the pandemic, Seattle’s Outdoor Research took note by developing a mask with an integrated filter. As with Phunkshun, it, too, is riding the pandemic’s wave to increased sales while helping the spread of contagion.

“Since we launched into making protective face coverings in spring 2020 with the onset of the pandemic, we’ve sold over a million consumer masks with our unique integrated filter design,” said Roger Barton, president, Outdoor Research. This fall, he added, the company has built on this program with its new 3-layer face covering, also made in Seattle. “It features a washable, integrated filter that filters down to 0.1 microns,” he said, adding that its ASTM-compliant design means there’s no need to remove or replace the filter.

One of the first outdoor companies to embrace the category, it tasked its traditional balaclava and uber tube designers early on to delve into the COVID facemask market. After ramping up onshore production of both surgical masks and N95 masks, it’s now launched its Essential Coverage Collection, a line of multi-layered, breathable (so they don’t get wet) Balaclavas and Ubertubes with its Essential filter and adjustable nose wire for fit.

Later, after ASTM created its standards for non-medical facemasks and covers, OR developed its new 3-Layer Face Cover, an ASTM-compliant mask with a built-in integrated filter that’s reusable and washable. Made from moisture-wicking polyester, it features minimal seams and an adjustable nose wire and earloops for a customizable fit and sunglass fogging prevention. It’s currently sold only direct-to-consumer online but will be rolled out to select specialty retailers beginning in January 2022.

“Looking forward, we think our face-covering program will continue to be an important offering in our line,” added Barton. “Consumers have learned the benefits of wearing a mask, both during COVID and beyond the pandemic. There’s a heightened awareness of the role that such protective face coverings can play.”

Mitch Mode of Mel’s Trading Post in Rhinelander, WI, reports that sales of OR facemasks have been strong, as well as runner-up Stormy Kromer. “Those two have been clear winners for us,” he said, adding they never made their own but rather just ordered them from existing suppliers. “Sales were strong from early 2020 through spring 2021, and then they dropped off before seeing some uptick this fall again.  We’ve sold a lot of them but one bike or canoe sale drives more dollars through the til.”

As for Buff-type neck gaiters and the like, he added that those have sold well also, but it’s difficult to assess what to attribute that to. “We’ve sold them for years and our winter business for them is driven as much by temperatures as anything else,” he said. “I feel that there was enough skepticism expressed about the effectiveness of neck gaiters that after a fairly short-lived spike in interest in spring 2020 their sales slowed back to more normal levels.”

Photo courtesy Phunkshun Wear