Now that stores are closed, warehouses, logistics companies and couriers are now on the front line of fashion retail.
No unnecessary contact means shopping expeditions have been postponed.
Prime minister Boris Johnson’s advice to the public to avoid restaurants, theatres, pubs and unnecessary travel has left high streets abandoned while consumers switch their spending to digital channels – all fine and well if the goods are being delivered.
At the forefront of the comparative online boom are the warehouses and courier companies that fulfil the orders. As shops close and head- and back-office staff who can do so work from home, it is business as usual for the logistics side of the industry.
When people have health concerns themselves, we have to be governed by them
Clyde Buntrock, CEO of Allport Cargo Services
“Some job roles lend themselves to working from home but, if you’re a driver, you drive – that’s what you do. The general mentality is that they want to work,” Clyde Buntrock, CEO of Allport Cargo Services tells Drapers.
“When people have health concerns themselves, we have to be governed by them. We put people at the centre of every decision we’re making. The business will do everything we can to support staff and customers.”
Allport is focusing on hygiene to keep employees safe. Staff at its warehouses are working in shifts to avoid the cross-contamination of people, and the business is using antibacterial wipes and devices to clean any contact points.
Allport delivers to retailers rather than directly to consumers but distancing measures have been put in place, adds Buntrock: “Drivers are effecting as much social distancing as they can. We’re pleased to see retail sites have put measures in – where drivers would once report to a traffic office, they’re now being asked to communicate remotely.”
One retail chairman agrees that online retail has been able to continue because of the controlled environments in which orders are distributed: “In a warehouse, the company is able to implement restrictive measures. However, in retail, you’re dealing with people that are coming into your store that you don’t employ, and you can’t control certain factors, such as hygiene.”
The safety measures in place may not, however, be enough to prevent warehouse closures if the government increases restrictions: “People think buying online is protective, and that will last for some time. But the reality is, if we’re in total lockdown, that will start to feed through to those [online] sectors.”
If the couriers do stop, basically every business stops in its entirety
Owner of an independent chain of stores
For consumers, taking deliveries means handling the same parcel as the courier as well as providing a signature.
Marks & Spencer has stopped this practice in a bid to continue service. It told customers in an email that it is deploying “a contact-free delivery experience” whereby customers have the option of drivers leaving parcels at the door.
Trade union GMB recognises that the logistics industry will now be the “new essential workers” in their delivery of food, medical care and other products.
National officer Mick Rix explains the steps being taken to limit contact: “Established logistics providers have put in place hygiene and safe distance standards in their warehouses. We are working with courier companies to ensure good standards of hygiene and make sure non-contact signing measures are brought in.”
Courier firm DPD says all its depots remain open and it has introduced new measures for hygiene and product safety: “Our drivers will not ask customers to sign our handheld units. We have changed our proof-of-delivery process for all deliveries until further notice.
“We have created a new process to ensure retailers still get full track and trace functionality, and complete visibility of all their parcels.”
A spokesman for UPS says the firm is currently serving customers as normal, and its employees and contractors are following “hygiene protocols … in line with suggested WHO [World Health Organization] measures”.
Most of the large logistics firms state they have contingency plans in place, but retailers are still worried about restrictions that could be imposed.
The owner of an independent chain of stores told Drapers online sales and distribution are key to retailers surviving coronavirus: “I think one of the keys to keeping things ticking over in some capacity is courier companies. If they stop, then basically everything stops in this day and age.
“They’re the lifeblood – they give you an avenue you can fall back on. If the couriers stop working, that will be a catastrophe. They hold a massive key to the future of a lot of online businesses. If the couriers do stop, basically every business stops in its entirety.”
The owner of one luxury boutique agrees: “The hope is that if there is a closing of physical stores, digital may take up a little of the downside of physical – but if the couriers stop delivering, there will be major issues for everyone.”
Allport’s Buntrock does not think it will come to that. The logistics company is now functioning with a skeleton staff in warehousing and delivery, and the rest of the business working from home.
“Buntrock told Drapers that after the wider lockdown announced by prime minister Boris Johnson on 23 March, it diverted its warehouse operators to working in the grocery retail supply chain to ”help with the surge in demand”.
Allport has also allocated a “significant percentage” of its UK delivery fleet to food and medical supply chains as the demand for clothing product had “slowed down.” The company experienced “customers cancelling orders with their suppliers to varying degrees”, and an increase in requests for storage by retailers needing to hold stock that was already in the supply chain.
With sales from physical stores dropping, retailers big and small are relying on their online business to see them through distressing times. Warehouses and delivery companies are currently continuing to operate and have contingency plans in place should the situation worsen.
The close relationship between retailers and the logistics firms, and functions that support them, has never been so crucial.