The Next Phase of the Retail Apocalypse Is Here (and It's Not Looking Good)

The Next Phase of the Retail Apocalypse Is Here (and It's Not Looking Good)
Photo:Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Even before the covid-19 pandemic swept across the country, it was well-known that department stores were struggling to stay afloat financially. But the current public health crisis has accelerated the already-weakened retail industry’s descent into a full-blown financial disaster.

Sales of clothing and accessories dropped by more than half during the month of March, and that trend is expected to continue into April. Normally during this time, retailers would be beginning to prepare for the 2020 holiday shopping season. But instead, many companies have been forced to furlough or lay off thousands of employees, and others are desperately attempting to figure out what the in-person shopping experience looks like in the time of social distancing guidelines. It’s not easy to figure out how to enforce social distancing measures in hands-on retail environments where everything from fitting rooms to beauty counters to fragrance cards could be a source of potential exposure to the virus.

“Over the last several years, the way stores fought back against online was to suggest that the experience was worth the trip,” said Simeon Siegel, a managing director at BMO Capital Markets who covers retail and e-commerce. “In this new normal, for now, the experience is what puts you at risk. So it falls to the retailers to figure out how to create a socially distanced experience that makes the trip worth the inconvenience and the risk.”

J. Crew is preparing to file for bankruptcy, and there are similar rumors about The Neiman Marcus Group, while Macy’s is preparing to reopen all of its 775 stores—despite the general uncertainty about when states will lift the shelter-in-place orders that have kept people inside since mid-March. The department store chain plans to begin opening stores over the next six to eight weeks, and they already have a vision for what this hands-off shopping experience will look like. Think plexiglass barriers in front of cash registers, hand sanitizer stations, and new rules for returning clothing and using makeup testers.

Although Macy’s plans for reopening have been made public, it seems as though the department store chain has failed to explain to its workers how it plans to keep them safe once stores begin to open.

“Some of our members have worked for Macy’s for three or four decades, and it is their lives that will be put on the line,” said the official, Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. “We have asked for information on how they intend to protect their employees and they have provided us with none. I am stupefied by their behavior.”

An official at the union that represents over 6,000 Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s workers in New York said they only found out the company was planning to reopen when the news was announced in the media on Thursday. Although the company has states that staff members in stores that open will need training on new health and safety routines, it appears as though the workers themselves have not received any information on what those routines will entail.

Macy’s expects that at first, the reopened stores will only bring in 15-20% of their usual business. It’s only natural that the already-drowning retail industry would do whatever possible to attempt to stay afloat in the midst of the global health pandemic, but Macy’s hasty reopening plans are just another reminder that to corporations, the health and well-being of workers come second to profit.

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