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Top Considerations for Reopening Fashion and Retail Companies Amidst COVID-19

As government officials begin to discuss reopening the economy, apparel brands should think about what preventative measures need to be implemented prior to reopening their retail locations across the country. While these measures may vary geographically based on the severity of the virus and state laws, fashion companies should consider the following policies and guidelines:

Watch Our Fashion Counsel Video: What Retailers Need to Know Before Reopening

Employment 

Modify the Shift and Hours Structure.

To minimize exposure, retailers should phase return to work by bringing back employees in stages rather than all at once. Schedules should be staggered to limit the number of employees in the workplace at any given time, and employees should be restricted to single shifts and no overtime hours. Retailers should also consider instituting controlled shifts so that different workers are not comingling at different times. This way, if a shift is exposed to COVID-19, instead of shutting down the entire store, retailers may only need to quarantine that one shift.

Repurpose Employees.

If fewer retail workers are needed, instead of laying off or furloughing, companies may consider finding other functions for their employees. For example, sales floor staff may now be responsible for store and PPE cleaning, e-commerce related activities, or customer service, such as consultation, personal shopping, or styling online.

Provide Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and Implement a Cleaning Schedule. 

Employees should be trained on how to properly use PPE and required to wear face masks and gloves and sanitize between customers. Those stores located in an outbreak hotspot should also consider installing plexiglass shields at checkout lanes or self-checkout registers with cashless payments. Retailers will need to determine the logistics of these policies, such as who will be responsible for and the frequency of cleaning and maintaining PPE and the store. While a location should be closed and deep cleaned if an employee or customer is exposed to COVID-19, stores should consider deep cleaning on a regular basis.

Monitor Employee Health. 

Retailers should enact new policies to address the detection and potential spread of COVID-19 among employees. For example, screening employees before entering the workplace, either through taking the employees’ temperature or through some other reliable means. Retailers should consider who will conduct the screenings, how social distancing will be enforced while employees wait to be screened, compliance with wage/hour laws, and whether to extend this practice to customers, contractors, and vendors. Retailers may also require employees to report if they or any household member has been diagnosed with or is experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, or has been in close contact with anyone who has been diagnosed or is experiencing symptoms. If such a report is received, employers should notify the rest of the workforce, particularly those who may have come in contact with the individual. These health and safety policies should all be implemented in compliance with the privacy considerations discussed below.

Consumer Health and Safety

Limit Customer Exposure.

The number of customers in the store at any given time should be limited and customers should be given or required to wear masks and gloves. Retailers should consider reserving shopping hours exclusively for at-risk customers, such as the elderly and those with a pre-existing condition. Retailers may also screen customers who enter the store with temperature checks or other methods. Inside the location, social distancing guidelines should be maintained and the store layout should be reconfigured if necessary to make social distancing easier.

Technological Solutions.

Stores may use online or over the phone booking systems to allow customers to book an appointment to spend a certain amount of time browsing or to pick up previously purchased merchandise curbside. This will also allow employers to make more efficient decisions about staffing schedules. To prevent large crowds, retailers can offer virtual reality solutions such as virtual fitting rooms and digital mirrors online.

Reinvent Product Packaging.

Product packaging should be resistant to germs and contamination and easy to disinfect. The product may even be wrapped in multiple layers of packaging to ensure safety. However, retailers should be mindful of using packaging that complies with environmental protection laws. While plastic may be the cheapest option, companies may wish to invest in developing more environmentally friendly and sustainable options.

Privacy 

Keep Employee Medical Information Confidential.

If employers are taking employees’ temperatures before entering the store or implementing some other screening or health monitoring process, retained data should be handled as confidential medical information maintained in a file separate from the personnel file. Moreover, while potentially impacted employees may be notified if a co-worker is diagnosed or symptomatic, retailers should refrain from disclosing the co-worker’s name, unless the employee expressly authorizes such disclosure.

Customer Surveillance.

To determine how to efficiently execute safety policies for a specific location, companies may choose to measure the number of customers in stores and the duration customers remain in stores. Any surveillance and resulting data must be collected, stored, and used in compliance with data privacy and security laws.

Real Estate

Revise Leases.

Many of the above policies require limited store hours. Retailers should be reviewing and revising their leases to ensure that locations are not required to remain open during a certain time frame or “during normal business hours.”

Supply Chain, Logistics, and Transportation

Sourcing.

While the supply chain of each apparel brand or retailer is unique, it goes without saying that fashion companies must have product available to their customers either in its stores or at domestic distributions facilities for direct deliveries. Fashion companies should be in active communication with their suppliers to gain visibility to the suppliers’ current and future manufacturing capacity. Fashion companies should take inventory of the terms of sale/purchase with their existing suppliers, including any relevant contractual documents, to understand their own rights and the obligations of their suppliers for meeting orders. If they are not doing it already, fashion companies should be analyzing alternative supply chains, including considering sourcing from alternative geographies, or even “near sourcing,” to create resiliency and redundancy in their supply chains and to mitigate against the current and future uncertainty.

Logistics and Transportation.

Because most apparel brands and retailers operating in the U.S. source their products internationally, and because most fashion products are transported by international air freight, it is more critical than ever for fashion companies to pay close attention to the topic of air freight capacity and cost. Fashion companies should be communicating early and often with their freight forwarding or logistics partners to determine if they can get uplift for their product and, if so, at what cost. Fashion companies should also identify and evaluate any relevant commercial and contractual terms that exist with their current logistics providers. Fashion companies should be aware that, depending on the terms of sale/purchase with their manufacturing suppliers, it might actually be the supplier who controls the relationship with the freight forwarder or logistics provider. Finally, at least one usual cliché applies: apparel companies and retailers should not have all of their eggs in one basket. Even if a fashion company has a “primary” relationship with a long-standing logistics partner, it is prudent to explore relationships with other logistics partners to provide flexibility when necessary.

State and Local Laws

Legal Compliance.

Governments are expected to impose strict social distancing regulations on retailers before they can reopen. For example, retailers will likely be expected to require employees to maintain a 6-foot distance between themselves and customers and to cap the number of customers in a particular location. Because this is a fluid situation, retailers must continue to review and remain compliant with applicable federal, state, and local laws and orders as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, and Occupational Safety and Health Administration guidelines.

Although these are uncertain times, fashion and retail companies can still prepare and implement preventative measures to limit risk upon reopening. Developing a concrete strategy now is essential to ensure the safety of employees and customers, cultivate customer loyalty and sales, and ultimately, the success of the business moving forward.

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