Covid-19: The battle to keep online retail running safely

UK prime minister, Boris Johnson, ordered the closure of all ‘non-essential’ stores at the start of the week, and now the heat is on UK retailers to ensure they can keep online operations running safely during a national health emergency.

In the last 24 hours, the GMB trade union has criticised Matalan, Asos, and Net-a-Porter for keeping warehouses open in what it describes as “cramped” conditions, questioning whether it’s possible for them to adhere to government-led social distancing measures.

The Covid-19 coronavirus death toll in the UK has reached 465, with 9,529 confirmed infections, and citizens have been urged to stay at home and only leave if it is completely necessary to do so. People who do leave have been told to keep two metres apart from each other to halt the spread of the virus.

The prime minister has advised consumers to use online delivery wherever possible to procure goods, but it is becoming increasingly difficult for businesses to do this while meeting health measures. A huge dilemma is building for many companies.

We're out…

The major grocers and pharmacies – and other providers of essential goods – will continue to operate critical online operations, with supermarkets such as Tesco, Sainsbury's and Asda looking to prioritise the vulnerable and elderly with home delivery services and stores. But Moss Bros, Fenwick, Schuh, and DFS are among the retailers to announce they have closed online.

Department store group, Fenwick, raised an issue that many others will be facing, saying: “We don’t have huge warehouses and automated systems, instead a group of dedicated workers hand pick the items you purchase from one of our designated stores, carefully wrap and pack them, ready for delivery.”

For Moss Bros, which switched off its eCommerce checkout and closed its Barking distribution facility after Johnson’s address to the nation on Monday night, the decision was a painful but straightforward one, according to head of eCommerce, Matt Henton.

“We collectively looked at it, and said we’re clearly a non-critical business with suits and formalwear – no-one could ever claim for a second we’d qualify for the essential list,” he tells Essential Retail.

“We have to do the right thing by our colleagues and the wider community. We can’t in good conscience put our colleagues who work in the warehouse in any greater risk than anybody else in the business so that we can keep selling some product.”

Warehouse workers on the front line

Several stories are surfacing on social media of retail warehouse staff complaining about being made to work. They say that if they opt not to attend work at this time but do not have a doctor's note, they are not entitled to sick pay.

Policies will differ by retailer, but the GMB is campaigning for better conditions on behalf of thousands of its retail employee members.

For instance, GMB organiser Deanne Ferguson, describes the situation at Asos’s Barnsley warehouse, where 4,000 people work, as “disgusting”. Stephanie Peacock, MP for Barnsley East, has even written to CEO, Nick Beighton, expressing her concerns.

“Thousands of people under one roof, not enforcing social distancing,” Ferguson comments, adding: “It looks exactly like a hot bed of infection – and workers are very scared.”

While some businesses have closed of their own accord, the majority continue to follow official government guidance, which at the time of writing states “online retail is still open and encouraged, and postal and delivery service will run as normal”.

But what does safe warehouse practice look like, in this environment? Even for those companies that have kept online operations running as safely as possible, their staff might not be able to avoid taking public transport to get to work, further risking safety.

As Essential Retail reported this week, White Stuff has made changes to shift patterns at is Leicester warehouse which “ensures social distancing at all times”.

Meanwhile, Next issued a statement on its position regarding Covid-19, late last night (25 March), saying it was following government guidelines, and amending its facilities accordingly.

“We are increasing levels of safety supervision and compliance in all operational workplaces to ensure they remain safe,” the retailer said.

“We are also investing in increased levels of sanitisation. We have already implemented measures to maintain strict social distancing. Further measures are being introduced to increase compliance and increase the distance between employees when they are at work.”

Staff deemed essential for the continuity of Next’s online service are requested to report for work, including those in warehouses, distribution, some store stock processing “for this week only”, and several call centres.

Next steps

As with much of the UK government guidance as the coronavirus crisis has escalated, there are some real contradictions in terms of what e-tailers or retailers with online departments should do. There are very few officially classed as ‘essential’, but won't some categories move into this category in these unprecedented times?

Paul Edwick, CEO of online retailer Lucky Locket, explains: "Try telling a mother of a six-month-old baby that new clothes aren’t essential, or that primary school age children don’t need anything new from the toy retailers and you run into the question of what is essential to one person isn’t essential to the next one."

The situation is certainly not a black and white argument, and will continue to evolve.

Blurring the boundaries further, official Scottish government advice appears stricter than that which is coming from central government. That was a contributing factor behind the online closure at Schuh, which has a head office and warehouse north of the border, in Livingston and Bathgate.

Schuh said the decision to close was despite several employees saying they wanted to work in the warehouse to support the online business.

This is a fast-moving situation, and the government could change its official guidance at any time. There are daily updates to how society and businesses should act at this unique time – most of which is aimed at easing the burden on the national health service.

Andy Mulcahy, strategy and insight director at e-tail trade association IMRG, says: “Official government advice is online retail can continue, but retailers may have that decision made for them.

“While many employees will be able to work from home, they can’t fulfil orders without warehouse staff and drivers. If they get cases of Covid-19 in warehouses, it’s likely they would have to shut them down and, consequently, cease online trading.”

These truly are extraordinary times for retail, as they are for wider society. And retailers should expect to face yet more complex decisions in the days and weeks ahead.