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Thousands of Stores Go Dark Amid CDC Warning on Public Gatherings

The hits just keep on coming for retail.

Just as global retailers were getting their stores back online in China after the coronavirus outbreak brought life to a virtual standstill in the world’s second-largest economy, many companies now face the prospect of temporarily closing stores in much of the Western world.

On Sunday evening, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued fresh guidance recommending that all gatherings of 50 or more people be postponed or cancelled for the next eight weeks. “When feasible, organizers could modify events to be virtual,” CDC said.

That’s not a viable alternative for brick-and-mortar operators already struggling to surmount flagging traffic. And it’s likely to unleash a new flood of temporary store closures in the days ahead.

Urban, Nike, Under Armour, Everlane, Patagonia

In just the past few days, Nike, Abercrombie & Fitch, Under Armour and Walmart have led a rash of retailers temporarily closing stores across continents or limiting hours of operations in an effort to slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has sparked at least 142,539 confirmed cases and 5,393 deaths worldwide, according to the World Health Organization’s March 14 situation report. But as of Sunday, Italian officials reported 1,809 total deaths, a sizeable 25 percent spike over the prior day that compounds the coronavirus chaos in what is now the epicenter of the global health emergency.

Retailers large and small are making the decision to keep their stores dark.

Urban Outfitters Inc. is closing all approximately 640 global stores, which “will not reopen until at least March 28,” the fashion retailer company announced Saturday. All employees will be compensated during the period, Urban said, and non-customer-facing business including e-commerce and the six-month-old Nuuly subscription service are not affected. The company’s portfolio includes the Urban Outfitters brand, in addition to Anthropologie Group, Free People and to a clutch of eateries.

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Following health officials’ recommendations to encourage social distancing, Urban said all employees who can work remotely are, and those who cannot will work in staggered shifts to “reduce density” at corporate offices. It’s also stepping up workplace cleaning protocols.

Nike Inc. followed suit Sunday morning, announcing that stores in “multiple countries” and regions including the United States, Canada, Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand, will cease operations for two weeks from March 16-27. Its digital presence on Nike.com as well as the Nike suite of apps remains uninterrupted, and similar to its retail peers, the athletic titan is giving staff the option to work from home, adjusting shifts to minimize large groups of people working side by side and cleaning facilities more deeply and frequently.

The third rung of the performance trinity, Under Armour is closing stores across North America from March 16-28 without interruption to staff pay, the Baltimore-based retailer said Sunday. Beyond offering the ability to work from home, the company is also giving staff “flexible attendance options” and has “implemented enhanced cleanliness and sanitation steps in both our corporate offices and distribution centers.”

Sustainable fashion retailer Everlane closed its stores starting March 15 while keeping store employees’ pay intact, the company said in a statement Saturday. “As we continue our daily lives in this changing reality, let’s work to protect and care for one another,” Everlane said, noting that stores are expected to reopen on March 28.

Outdoor stalwart Patagonia said it’s “temporarily shutting down” operations and unable to fulfill e-commerce orders, according to a statement on its website, which said the brand will provide an update at 4 p.m. PT on March 16.

Abercrombie, Buck Mason, Walmart, Lululemon, Macy’s

Teen retailer Abercrombie & Fitch is locking down stores, too, the company said Sunday. Locations in the U.S., Canada and Mexico are closed as of March 15, while brick-and-mortar stores in Europe, the Middle East and Africa will be closed beginning March 16. The shutdown is expected to last through March 28, the retailer added, and store associates will receive their usual compensation.

Taking stores offline for two weeks “is in keeping with our commitment to being a responsible corporate citizen,” CEO Fran Horowitz said, noting the company’s priority remains on the “wellbeing of our associates, our customers, our partners and our communities.”

“We believe that our current capabilities will allow us to continue to fulfill our customers’ needs during this unprecedented period of uncertainty,” she added, citing “significant investments” and IT infrastructure that she feels will equip the retailer to weather the current unknowns.

Los Angeles-based men’s wear retailer Buck Mason closed all 10 stores as of Friday, the company said. “We’ve decided to take this proactive measure to help keep our staff and customers healthy, as well as try and level the curve of infection amongst those in our community who are most at risk,” said Buck Mason co-founder, Erik Allen Ford, noting that all 60 store employees will be compensated as usual during the closure.

“An overreaction today might seem like an under-reaction tomorrow,” co-founder Sasha Koehn added, “so best to err on the side of caution in this uncertain time.”

Though it hasn’t announced any closures, America’s largest retailer is scaling back store hours at certain locations to better handle the crush of shoppers scouring shelves for essential pandemic supplies.

In a blog post published Saturday, Walmart announced that its stores and Neighborhood Markets will operate from 6 a.m. through 11 p.m., a change that largely affects 24-hour locations. Stores that open later or close earlier than the newly stated hours of operation will be not affected, Dacona Smith, executive vice president and chief operating officer, Walmart U.S., noted in the post. The move will support associates in getting the most in-demand products out into the aisles as well as keeping stores clean and sanitized.

Lululemon CEO Calvin McDonald took to Twitter Sunday afternoon to share the yoga-centered retail chain’s store updates.

“In light of the rapidly changing COVID-19 developments, @lululemon has decided today to close all stores in North America & Europe from March 16-March 27 to help protect our global community, guests and people, and ensure we doing our part to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” he tweeted, just two days after the Vancouver-based company said it would limit store hours, suspend “store-based events and gatherings” and set up a Global Relief Pay plan for workers affected by pandemic disruption.

On Thursday, Macy’s CEO Jeff Gennette reassured customers that Macy’s stores remain open, stressing the “enhanced cleaning measures” have been put in place. Bloomingdale’s chairman and CEO Tony Spring issued a similar statement Friday. The upscale retailer has “enhanced and more frequent sanitizing measures” across its store fleet and will monitor guidance from health officials. Land’s End is closing all U.S. stores through March 29, CEO Jerome Griffith told customers in an email Sunday, and associates will be paid for the hours they were scheduled to work.

NRF, RILA condemn ‘panic buying’

As the outbreak racks up confirmed cases across the U.S.—more than 3,100 in 49 states as of Sunday—consumers have shifted their shopping spend over the past week from discretionary purchases to indispensable necessities essential for riding out weeks of social distancing. Panic-buying shoppers have cleaned out many stores’ supplies of toilet paper, grocery staples, hand sanitizer and other must-haves, behavior that has prompted retail leaders to speak out.

“Declaring coronavirus (COVID-19) a national emergency in the United States was a critical step toward ensuring that our communities, our friends and our families will have the resources necessary to protect their safety and security and provide a level of clarity during an uncertain time,” National Retail Federation president and CEO Matthew Shay and Retail Industry Leaders Association president Brian Dodge said in a joint statement urging consumers to shop responsibly as the COVID-19 epidemic unfolds.

“Retailers–particularly grocery providers–are working with manufacturers, suppliers and government agencies to make certain essential products and services remain readily available to customers,” they added, and “retail supply chains remain strong and retail employees are working around the clock to meet consumer demand.”

Shay and Dodge urged consumers to only buy what they need for the “next two weeks,” stressing that “stockpiling creates unnecessary gaps between the time that someone who truly needs a product can find it” as needed.

“This is particularly important for our most vulnerable neighbors–the elderly and those who are struggling with other health issues,” the pair said. “Hoarding products only contributes to the fear surrounding the virus, and any hoarder acting with malicious intent to drive up prices on a secondary market should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”