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Coronavirus Spread Stokes Consumer Fears Over E-Commerce Orders from China

As coronavirus panic continues to mount, consumers are looking at their shopping behaviors with a critical eye.

According to data-driven merchandising platform First Insight, the majority of U.S. consumers (66 percent) are worried about the spread of the disease, and more than two-fifths (44 percent) of shoppers say those fears have already impacted their purchasing decisions.

Nearly one-third (30 percent) said they’re already shopping less frequently in stores, and one-fifth (21 percent) said they were turning to e-commerce to fill the void.

Consumers are also looking to modern retail solutions, like buy online, pick up in stores (BOPIS) services, to mitigate the risk associated with physical shopping—namely, coming into contact with store associates and other customers.

More than one-quarter (29 percent) of First Insight’s survey respondents said they were using buy-online services to have products delivered to their homes, while 18 percent said they prefer curbside pickup.

Notably, nearly half (49 percent) of all respondents expressed concerns about receiving apparel or other products that had been produced in impacted areas like China, where the outbreak originated in Wuhan. Despite the World Health Organization’s (WHO) assurances that packages originating in the country are safe to be opened, shoppers are still wary about the disease’s ability to spread by mail.

Luxury and premium apparel rental service Rent the Runway is tackling its members’ anxieties about that possibility head-on. In an email obtained by Sourcing Journal that was sent to its database on Wednesday, the company said it wanted to “proactively provide details and additional transparency around our cleaning processes.”

The company first cited Harvard Health’s finding that the coronavirus, officially known as COVID-19, cannot be transmitted from soft surfaces like fabric or carpet to humans.

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Rent the Runway said it uses cleaning agents on its garments and accessories during wet and dry cleaning processes that are designed to kill viruses like the common cold and flu.

Products also go through an additional steaming stage, “which heats items to between 248°F and 302°F, with the exception of faux fur, select outerwear, leather and faux leather garments,” which are treated through standard procedures. The rental service cited a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finding that flu viruses are killed by heat above 167°F.

After cleaning and steaming, garments are enclosed in plastic for protection and cleanliness.

“The teams in our fulfillment centers will continue to use a variety of techniques to ensure that each garment is thoroughly cleaned, steamed and pressed, inspected for quality, and carefully packaged so that it arrives ready to wear,” Rent the Runway wrote. “While scientific information is still developing, we have no reason to believe that our processes are ineffective against COVID-19.”

Nuuly, the clothing rental business Urban Outfitters, Inc. launched last year, similarly reminded customers about its cleaning process, in an email sent to subscribers Thursday.

“In light of the news coverage around COVID-19, we wanted to make sure you’re aware of the precautions we take to make sure our products are always clean, free of germs and safe for the next consumer to use,” Nuuly wrote.

The business uses wet and dry cleaning methods to dislodge dirt and bacteria from garments, it wrote, and employs a “250-degree steam tunnel” when needed, in addition to cleaning and sanitizing the reusable bags in which apparel is shipped to customers. Employees wear gloves when receiving and dispatching orders, Nuuly added, noting that it will “will update our practices as recommended” based on any new information from WHO and the CDC.

Additional reporting by Jessica Binns.