Shield Pals, which sells PPE like cloth masks, face shields, hand sanitizer and gowns, opened on June 27 at The Mall of Columbia in Columbia, Maryland, in a retail space formerly occupied by an Apple store.
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"We wanted people to be able to look at the masks, and touch and feel them because so much of (mask buying) has been online that you don't always know what you're getting," co-founder Chris McCormick told TODAY Style. "We just want to help people feel more comfortable about shopping and being out in public while staying safe."
The store is believed to be the first retail PPE-only store in a U.S. mall, a spokesperson for the International Council of Shopping Centers told TODAY. While other existing businesses may have started selling masks among their regular items, Shield Pals is the first to go all in on PPE sales.
"When they explained what their concept was, I could immediately see that this would be a great customer experience and a very unique concept for The Mall in Columbia," Barbara Nicklas, senior general manager at the mall, told TODAY.
"You can really see how the store is an experience. And it's a necessity that all of us have to wear these (masks), so we're looking for fashionable ones, and we're looking for fun ones."
The store has a clean design with bright colors that are meant to assuage any anxiety at the thought of going into a store at the mall to buy items to protect against a deadly illness.
They have packs of stickers for kids to put on face shields as well as a giant face shield that people can stand inside for Instagram photos. The customers have mainly been members of the public who are not health care workers, according to McCormick.
"We want to make it so it's not scary," he said. "We want to make it playful and add some creativity to it. You've got to humanize right now."
It's the type of business that even McCormick couldn't have fathomed before the pandemic started.
"If six months ago you told me our business would be making gowns and face shields, I would've laughed right along with you," he said. "It would've been outlandish to even consider it. But now we're in this, and I think every little bit makes an impact."
Shield Pals came about as a pivot after the pandemic devastated Hatch Exhibits, an event marketing company that McCormick and his wife, Tracy, founded five years ago. With live events being cancelled across the board due to the pandemic, McCormick realized many of the machines he already had could be repurposed to make PPE, like reusable face shields.
Two days after McCormick had to furlough 24 employees in mid-March, he called in about 10 people to their workshop and they came up with a workable face shield and halo. They started Shield Pals to sell them online and immediately received an overwhelming response with orders for tens of thousands of face shields.
Shield Pals has been spun off as a separate entity, and the two companies now have more than 100 total employees. The company, which signed a short-term lease at The Mall of Columbia, has talked about opening up to 50 locations at different malls depending on how this first site goes.
The costs were also minimal because they could build all their own displays since they already had the materials and expertise from Hatch Exhibits. They have sourced all their hand sanitizer and masks from Maryland-based companies, and they make the face shields and gowns themselves at a facility in Elkridge.
The irony is that if more people continue to wear masks and PPE as recommended by health officials, the better chance there is that the virus will be contained to the point where Shield Pals will no longer be a viable business.
"Do I see it still going on in this form in five years?" McCormick said. "Probably not. But with this pandemic, how do you predict any of this stuff?"