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Fashion e-tailers refute social distancing criticism, Next, Net-A-Porter shut e-stores

Mar 26, 2020

UK fashion e-tail is facing a steady shutdown as some well-known names respond to criticism of the efforts they’re making to keep warehouse staff and other workers safe.

Net-A-Porter has shuttered its website for now - Net-A-Porter

On Thursday, big names Net-A-Porter and Next said they were stopping taking online orders after concerns had been expressed about the ability of staff to maintain adequate social distancing.

Earlier, Fenwick, Moss Bros and Schuh had also closed their online ops. And while they hadn’t come in for the same kind of criticism, their decisions added to the wider e-tail shutdown.

But as mentioned, the big story on Thursday was the criticism being levelled at fashion vendors (either multichannel or pureplay) that continued to trade online. There were reports of concerns over worker proximity to colleagues while doing their jobs and trade unions were weighing in on the issue.

The GMB union accused YNAP’s Net-A-Porter “of putting fashion before lives by refusing to shut during the coronavirus crisis” and called on it “to follow government advice and immediately close”. 

On Thursday, a Net-A-Porter spokesperson told Fashionetwork.com that it had already decided to close. "We will be temporarily closing our London warehouse in line with similar temporary closures we have made in Europe and the USA, until further notice,” it said.  

A total of 550 people work at its site in Charlton, South London. It has also suspended its US site after temporarily closing its warehouse there.

Net-A-Porter, like other sites, had been facing issues of worker safety during the lockdown but had put strong social distancing and hygiene measures in place. 

Meanwhile, at the other end of the price scale, Next has also stopped taking online orders until further notice after reports of the warehouse and distribution workforce being concerned over the coronavirus outbreak.

The company will send out existing orders but has halted its warehouse and distribution operations for new orders.

The move came after a report highlighted the efforts it had been taking to keep deliveries going during the lockdown. The Press Association (PA) said that as of Wednesday, Next was offering to pay staff 20% extra if they worked in its stores. It wanted them to travel to the shuttered stores to select clothing for online orders. Large amounts of stock for the multichannel retailer are currently locked up in those shops.

An email seen by the PA told staff that the work needed to be done "to keep the company operating. We need to keep the online business functioning to be certain that Next emerges from this short-term crisis.”

The email also said there was no obligation for staff to do this and laid out measures to ensure social distancing and a clean work area while the work was being undertaken. That meant there would be limits on the number of people able to be in any of the stores at one time and rules ensuring items are only touched by one person.

Online giants

So far the two fashion e-tail giants, Asos and Boohoo, remain operational.

On Thursday, the GMB union had also claimed that social distancing was being overlooked at the Asos warehouse in Grimethorpe, Barnsley, where “up to 4,0000 people” are claimed to work. But the company said the claims were wrong.

An Asos spokesperson told us: "We totally refute the allegations made by the GMB this morning. They are false, do nothing more than serve to create panic and hysteria in an already uncertain time, and are part of a continuing campaign against us and the recognised union on site, Community. It is simply not true to say we don’t have social distancing protocols in place and it is not true to say that we have thousands of employees working under one roof.

"The reality is we typically have around 500 colleagues working in our 680,000 square feet facility at any one time and we have strict social distancing protocols in place but, it must be said, it is also our colleagues’ responsibility to adhere to them. As directed by the Government, we, along with other online retailers, are ensuring we are striking the right balance between keeping our warehouse operational, for the good of our employees and the wider economy, and maintaining the health and safety of staff, which is always our number one priority.”

Meanwhile, the Telegraph had reported several Boohoo workers complaining about working conditions at its hub. One said that: "Boohoo has advised staff to observe the two metre separation rule. However, that is impossible to achieve due to the nature of the work.”

But in reply, Boohoo said: “We have closely followed the Government guidelines to keep everyone in our Boohoo family safe and well. We have transitioned the majority of our teams to working from home. We immediately identified those in a high risk category and removed them from the workplace for their safety and have closed all communal areas. Where it is not possible for our teams to do their jobs from home we have implemented stringent hygiene and self-distancing measures and have lots of support in place. The steps we have taken are extensive and we have our senior team monitoring the site continually to ensure adherence, it is therefore wholly untrue to suggest that we are not protecting the well-being of our team."

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