Retailers are concerned they will be pressured to close their online operations, which they fear could be the “final straw” for the supply chain and the whole economy.
This week several retailers, including River Island, Next, Net-a-Porter, TK Maxx and Moss Bros, announced they will be closing their online operations, warehouses and distribution operations, to help protect workers against the coronavirus.
“Next has listened very carefully to its colleagues working in warehousing and distribution operations to fulfil online orders,” the retailer said. “It is clear that many increasingly feel they should be at home in the current climate.”
River Island CEO Will Kernan described it as a hard decision to make, but agreed that workers’ safety is more important than sales: “This was a difficult decision, as we always want to look after our customers, but the safety of our communities has to come first.
“We hope that by temporarily closing our DC [distribution centre], we are helping to protect our colleagues and those around them.”
Brian Brick, Moss Bros CEO, agreed: “Everyone has to do what they see fit. I’m not telling people what to do – but I didn’t feel comfortable and people in the DC didn’t feel comfortable going in when people were working from home.
“We made a decision that we have a social responsibility. It wasn’t the right thing to keep our website open.”
Jody Plows, CEO of Nobody’s Child, which temporarily ceased trading on Monday, said: “In response to the announcement on Covid-19 on Monday we made the difficult decision to cease trading. We felt strongly that this was right thing to do and socially irresponsible to carry on trading non-essential products and putting our team at risk in the process.
“Customers are being bombarded with discounts and this was not something we wanted to participate in through this crisis, preferring to protect our staff. We will absolutely be staying connected with our customer and take the time to ensure that we come through this stronger.”
They say they have taken protective measures to help ensure the safety of staff and will continue to operate until advised otherwise by the government.
Mark Ashton, founder and CEO of Little Mistress Group, said: “Within our business-to-consumer Warehouse, we have reduced the number of staff, as sales have dropped by around 40%, but the traffic has improved since stores closed. Each team member has their own working zone and are respecting distance.”
H&M Group told Drapers ”We are closely following UK government advice which has advised online retail remains open and encouraged. We will continue to be led by local government advice and health authority updates and continuously review the situation.
”We understand that not all positions are able to work remotely but those who can have been encouraged to do so. For those who are unable to work from home we have put additional measures in place such as strict hygiene routines, thorough and more regular cleaning of premises and where required, adhering to social distancing recommendations.”
Several groups and organisations are ramping up the pressure for fashion and footwear clothing operations to close.
Mick Rix, trade union GMB national officer, said: “Warehouses should consider scaling back their operations to make sure they are complying with hygiene protocols and can operate safely.
“In the last 24 hours we’ve had images and videos that are horrifying – really busy spaces with hundreds of people in canteens at the same time. We have to consider the safety of our workers and the general public – the Covid-19 virus can live on cardboard for up to 24 hours, which can be well within the speed of deliveries.”
However, many fear that closing online businesses could impact the whole supply chain and the economy.
“Following Next’s decision to close, I think there will be peer and social pressure to follow suit,” one multiple retailer said.
“We are reacting on a day-to-day basis. The welfare of our warehouse workers is so important and we have put things in place to protect that. We are changing shifts regularly and getting staff to keep their distance. We will keep our warehouses open as long as we possibly [are allowed to].”
One lifestyle multiple retailer agreed: “It’s very difficult. The wellbeing of employees is the most important thing. But you’re then balanced with customers still want to buy stuff, and trying to protect the work and livelihood and operations of a business that employs several hundred people.
“If you close your website and distribution centre, you have no income effectively but clothing retailers are all at the start of spring 20, so we all have pretty full warehouses with stock that has been paid for.
“If everyone did, it the knock-on impact on the sector that is already very distressed could be the final straw for a lot of people – not necessarily retailer immediately, but the people in their supply chain and suppliers.”
Another lifestyle multiple retailer reiterated that keeping open is for the good of the economy: “It’s a balance, as we are heeding government guidance and trying to keep the economy going. Let’s face it: it’s not about profit, as that went out of the window when we closed shops.”
Independents have told Drapers they are also continuing online operations from store, on “limited skeleton staff”.
Philippa Meighan, head buyer at Sandersons Boutique Store in Sheffield, said: I’ve noticed that [retailers] and Fenwicks have [stopped online operations]. I think it’s something we take day by day, week on week – we will assess the situation. We want to try to keep going as long as we can. I’m in a lucky position that we can social distance while we do it. As it’s a family business, we can make those decisions very quickly.
“Online has become a bigger thing for us. We’re doing lots of promoting on social media, and starting an Instagram account called Sandersons Marketplace where we upload videos, to get more of a personal touch with the customer. The more we interact with customers the more personable it is.”
Karen Hume, owner of A Hume Country Clothing in Kelso, said: “My main concern is because we’re non-essential is it correct to continue? It raises my concerns a little bit that big retailers such as Schuh are closing.”
Hume has reduced her staff from 21 to three to fulfil online orders. Orders are picked from a mixture of shop floor, warehouse and stockrooms, but staff are practising safe social distancing and increased cleanliness.
The Scottish government has said: “Online retail is still open and encouraged, and postal and delivery services will run as norma.l”
Lisa Taylor, owner of Epitome in Edinburgh, told Drapers: “It doesn’t worry me as I’m not on the scale of [Schuh] and it’s an independent shop. We’re a small business working online and trying to survive.”
Taylor is working alongside one other colleague at a 4 metre distance to pack deliveries. The team receives deliveries without coming into contact with drivers, and handles all packages with gloves.
“I want to still try to keep a presence on the online shop so it doesn’t fade. Independent businesses are very different because we’re so much smaller, we’re not in a huge warehouse with lots of people,” Taylor said.