UK Fashion Retailers Are Stopping Their Online Deliveries. Could Their US Peers Be Next?

While online sales may be a rare lifeline for most fashion retailers during the coronavirus crisis, several U.K. chains have announced temporary closures of their online businesses in response to outcry from their warehouse employees.

On Thursday, Next — one of the country’s largest fashion retailers, with annual sales of £3.9 billion (about $4.8 billion) — posted a notice on its site alerting customers that it would no longer be accepting orders.

“We have listened carefully to our colleagues in our warehouses and distribution operations,” it read. “It is clear that many increasingly feel they should be at home in the current climate. As a result, we have taken the difficult decision to close our warehouse and distribution operations until further notice.”

This followed similar moves by footwear brand Schuh and fast-fashion retailer River Island, which began preparations for shuttering its online business this week after closing all of its physical retail stores.

“The difficult choices we have made are to protect the health of our employees who are crucial to the long-term success of our business,” River Island CEO Will Kernan said in a statement. “I am saddened that this decision will have an impact on customers and partners and apologize for the inconvenience that they will experience until we re-open.”

On Monday, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson — who has since tested positive for COVID-19, and is currently in isolation — imposed a lockdown of at least three weeks, ordering the closure of all non-essential businesses. As in the parts of the U.S. under similar restrictions, U.K. storage and distribution facilities are considered “essential” according to the administration’s guidance, but workers have raised concerns that the massive warehouses don’t allow for social distancing and could exacerbate the spread of the virus.

On Wednesday, the GMB trade union called out ASOS for keeping its warehouse in the north of England open during the lockdown.

“Asos needs to put people before profits and make sure workers are [distanced] apart and paid properly if they need to take time off,” organizer Deanne Ferguson wrote.

ASOS has refuted the allegations, saying only 500 people at a time are currently working in the 680,000-square-foot facility and pointing to its compliance with the government’s orders.

“Next’s decision is likely to reverberate across the retail industry — and many warehouse workers at other retailers will question why they have not been furloughed to protect their safety,” Patrick O’Brien, UK retail research director at data and analytics company GlobalData, wrote in a research note. “River Island, TK Maxx and other smaller players have also shut online operations, and as demand for fashion continues to fall we expect other retailers to follow suit, unless they can find a way to operate warehouses safely.”

Most U.S. retailers have avoided discussion about taking similar actions, though some have been forced to delay shipments or cut operations to comply with containment measures in certain states.

Net-A-Porter, Mr. Porter and The Outnet suspended U.S. sales this week following an order issued by New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy that requires most businesses in the state to close.

Secaucus, NJ-based luxury consignment site TheRealReal likewise cautions customers to expect shipments to take five days longer than usual to arrive; it has suspended overnight and two-day shipping.

In California, where Gov. Gavin Newsom has issued a shelter-in-place order, Deckers Brands said on Tuesday that its Moreno Valley footwear distribution center had reopened with “modified operations” at a “limited capacity.” The company operates Ugg and Hoka One One, among other brands.

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