Ohio-based fabric and crafts retailer Jo-Ann Stores has been quietly building its own social responsibility profile over the past few years. Now it appears that the COVID-19 crisis has sparked a new wave of activism for the company as it takes on anti-maskers.
Earlier this month, Jo-Ann joined a wave of major U.S. retailers requesting all customers wear masks regardless of state guidelines. Last week, Jo-Ann’s president and CEO, Wade Miquelon, upped the ante by stating that the company is willing to lose customers over its stand on public health.
Jo-Ann announced its new mask policy on July 23 in an open letter to customers from Miquelon. The wording of the letter is interesting, in that Miquelon begins by underscoring the need for individual protection and ends with a ringing call for national action.
“We have required facemasks for store Team Members to protect our customers, and we want to extend that protection to all who are in our stores,” Miquelon begins.
“As such, beginning Monday, July 27, we respectfully encourage all customers – regardless of local mask mandates — to wear a facemask or covering whenever you are in a Jo-Ann store,” he continues in bold face.
Though the “respectfully encourage” language is mild enough, the letter concludes with a not-so-subtle dig at anyone who may walk into a Jo-Ann store without a mask.
“Thank you for all you are doing to help protect the nation by making and wearing masks in public, and for inspiring others through your creativity and generosity,” Miquelon writes.
With 850 stores in 49 states, that appeal to patriotism and national action will reach a wide audience — as will the message that anti-maskers are not helping to protect their communities. In addition, to individual shoppers, this message reaches many small business owners who purchase supplies from Jo-Ann, and it may ripple out to have an impact on their customers as well.
Miquelon personally doubled down on the mask issue in an interview with CNN on Saturday, in which he stated that Jo-Ann was prepared to lose customers due to its new mask policy. Previously, the company only required masks in stores where state guidelines required them.
"This is the right thing to do," Miquelon said. "So, for the very few minority [of people] that don't want to comply, I think those are probably customers that we're willing to lose just because of the situation that we're in.”
Miquelon also underscored how retail employees have been put at risk by the absence of a strong national policy on masks — and sent a pointed message to anti-maskers as well. “I just don't want to see an employee get hurt,” he said. “Our people didn't sign up for that. They're just trying to be a good citizen and earn a living.”
While Jo-Ann was not the first major retailer to require wearing a mask, Miquelon has propelled the company front and center on the mask issue. Combined with the letter, Miquelon’s personal statement positions Jo-Ann and its loyal customers on the moral high ground, in stark contrast to members of the public — and elected officials — who downplay the effectiveness of masks.
Jo-Ann’s moral stance, along with its vocal calling out of anti-maskers, together make social outliers of individuals who react emotionally and violently when asked to wear a mask.
All of this may seem like a bolt out of the blue for a homey arts-and-crafts retailer. However, a hint of social activism appears in the company’s vision of being “the inspirational leader that helps everyone find their Happy Place.”
That vision took concrete form early in the COVID-19 outbreak. On March 20, Jo-Ann announced that its in-store classrooms were open free of charge, with COVID prevention precautions, to customers for making and donating masks and other protective gear to frontline health workers.
“Participating locations will offer sewing machines, materials and guidance to help customers safely make facemasks and covers, gowns and other items to donate to America’s hospitals,” the company stated. “Jo-Ann will provide and donate 100% of the supplies needed for these projects for those who come in to make.”
Additionally, Jo-Ann offered its stores as collection points for sewers making masks and other items at home. The company also offered to help hospitals secure supplies of fabric and other materials they may need, partnering with Neiman Marcus and David’s Bridal in the effort.
The company followed up on June 24 with a campaign that enlists customers in a nationwide “Masks for Schools” effort ahead of the re-opening of schools this fall. The mask donations will go to underserved students through Jo-Ann’s longtime partnership on school supplies with the Kids In Need Foundation.
While Jo-Ann and other retailers have not directly confronted the Donald Trump administration in so many words, their actions in support of masks stand as a strong rebuke to an administration that has routinely rejected science in its response to the COVID-19 outbreak, as it has in other areas.
In that regard, two of Jo-Ann’s other recent actions appear to support a science-based approach to social responsibility, as well as youth empowerment through learning.
In 2018, the company formed a collaboration with the National 4-H Council on a hands-on learning initiative. The 4-H program is the largest youth development organization in the U.S., and it is rooted in a century-old U.S. Department of Agriculture initiative aimed at sharing science-based knowledge with the public.
The collaboration builds on a rewards card donation program benefiting 4-H, which Jo-Ann launched in 2017. The store also carries a line of 4-H themed patterns among its fabrics.
In 2017, the company also formed a similar partnership with Girl Scouts of the USA. “GSUSA offers girls the opportunity to develop leadership skills through programming focused on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM); the outdoors; life skills; and entrepreneurship,” Jo-Ann noted in a press statement announcing the new collaboration.
Now that Jo-Ann has come down firmly on the side of science on COVID-19 response, it will be interesting to see where the company’s next foray into social responsibility will lead it – and how the anti-maskers will respond.
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Image credit: Leon Kaye
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.