Covid-19: Next and River Island close distribution centres

Next and River Island are the latest retailers to take drastic measures to stop the spread of coronavirus.

Next has closed the warehouse and distribution centres which support its online operations. The retailer said its colleagues “increasingly feel they should be at home in the current climate”.

Next said it will not be taking any more online orders after 26 March until further notice. It explained that orders that had not been sent out this evening will be shipped to customers as soon as possible.

Only last night, Next issued a statement on its position regarding Covid-19, saying it was following government guidelines, and amending its warehouse facilities accordingly. It said it was only calling on staff deemed essential for the continuity of its online service to report for work, including those in warehouses, distribution, some store stock processing “for this week only”, and several call centres. But less than 24 hours later the retailer has made a significant U-turn.

This week, a number of non-essential online retailers have made the difficult decision to close their eCommerce stores, including Schuh, Moss Bros and Fenwick. The official government guidelines at the time of writing states “online retail is still open and encouraged, and postal and delivery service will run as normal”.

That said, River Island is another retailer to announce a disruption to its online business with the closure of its distribution centre. After temporarily closing its stores last week, the retailer tonight said it has taken action to protect its colleagues.

But rather than completely cutting off its eCommerce site, the retailer said it is still taking orders, saying “we just can’t promise when we will get them to you. It could take weeks, although we hope not”.

While its regular digital trading is disrupted, River Island encouraged customers to stay in touch via social media: “As you stay at home, we want to be there with you, lightening the mood (if we can) and sharing entertainment and inspiration”.

TK Maxx also followed in River Island and Next's footsteps, closing its online operations as of today. The clothing and homeware retailer has decided to stop taking online orders from today. Returns have been extended to 30 days from when stores and its website re-opens. TK Maxx said customers should not post back any returns as “we’re so sorry, we won’t be there”. 

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.

Andy Brian, head of retail at law firm Gordons, believes these retailers will be the first of many to close their online operations.

“Like many sectors the retail industry is grappling with how to maintain operations whilst meeting the government’s guidelines on social distancing," he said. 

“Outside of the ‘essential’ retailers that are still open to the public, Boris Johnson’s advice to shoppers was to keep buying online. But the reality is that this requires a huge network of staff to process, pick and distribute orders, and it is not always practical to work two metres apart in these roles."