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COVID-19 Case Study: A Clothing Retailer Tests Cleaning Systems

Organization: A U.S.-based clothing retailer with 1,000 corporate-owned brick-and-mortar locations in North America, with franchises in other parts of the world.

Key issues:
• Corporate social responsibility
• Safely processing item returns
• Mass furloughs of staff
• Constant cleaning of distribution facilities

28 May Update

The loss prevention department has been grappling with how to thoroughly clean returned goods to render them suitable for resale. They security team tested three solutions: UV light, steamers, and a spray. None of the solutions were a good fit.

“UV light was a bust,” says the senior loss prevention (LP) manager. The sprays were no better. The only option showing promise was steamers—portable closets into which clothing could theoretically have the virus steamed out. They seemed to work well, but at a price. “They were expensive and clunky,” the LP manager says. Moreover, the steamers required a special power source, water line, and drainage system, all steep requirements.

Instead, according to the LP manager, the prevailing method of dealing with returns is to let items sit until the virus degrades. For quicker turnarounds, the retailer is looking at hand-held steamers.

Hundreds of stores have reopened, about 40 percent of the total, with accompanying staff recalled from furlough. Once a state or other jurisdiction gives the all clear, each location in that area takes a week to remodel, following written protocols specifying issues such as disinfection, store redesign, and staff engagement with customers.

Stores also require customers to wear a Level 2 surgical mask, which a staff member distributes at the entrance. At first the retailer required all patrons to wear masks, but some customers cited reasons for not wearing them, such as difficulty breathing. Now, “if you strenuously object, we will let you in,” the LP manager says. “We are moving toward more localized decisions.”

Another factor is that stores are using up masks quickly. Foot traffic has greatly exceeded expectations, though purchases don’t always materialize. Now the stores’ biggest issue is the high cost of stocking masks.

Corporate management opted not to create directional lanes or routes in its stores, which tend to be modestly sized and located in malls. With men’s apparel on one side of the store and women’s on the other, and with extra space created, customers are pretty evenly dispersed, the LP manager says. “We trust people to keep their distance, but we monitor them,” he adds.

Every other changing room has been closed off. Customers pay the cashier through Plexiglas panels and retrieve their own receipts from a printer. Stores also limit total capacity. When they reach their limit, the staff member at the entrance forms a queue with six-foot spacing.

The pandemic’s massive economic toll, coupled with the ongoing struggles of the shopping center model, means that some stores will not reopen.

The governor of the state where the clothier is headquartered started a phased reopening of businesses. From a low of 20 employees at a HQ that usually holds 800, approximately 72 employees reported to the office by 20 May 2020. The vast majority of employees are still encouraged to stay home. Once the state fully opens for business, more employees will return to HQ, but it’s likely some will work from home permanently.

Before COVID-19 hit, the company had an HQ remodel in the works, which included adding another building. Now the eventual remodel will look very different, likely accommodating fewer staff but creating more space between work areas.

Staff who have returned saw management address their health concerns, including guiding them around frequently touched surfaces. Arriving personnel answer a quick health questionnaire and receive a temperature check via a thermal camera that resembles an iPad. If someone’s temperature registers 100.4 F or above, they report to a nearby nurse who takes their temperature again. If it is still high, they are directed to go home and follow isolation protocols. No one has been asked to go home under these new protocols yet. With only 72 people coming to the office, it has been easy to maintain six-foot distances between staff, the LP manager says.

In addition, staff used to have to scan their keycard three separate times to get to their work areas. Now, they only have to use it once, with one door propped open and another manned by a guard. Masks are available at the entrance next to a hand-sanitizing station. Elevator occupancy is capped at four. One stairway is designated as up, the other as down. Bathroom doors are also propped open, which doesn’t cause privacy issues because their entrances are L-shaped. Staff must follow work area cleaning protocols when they arrive, when they leave, and periodically throughout the day. The cafeteria no longer offers fountain drinks, only bottles, and a boxed lunch is the only food option, though staff receive it for free.

Protocols at the warehouse remain the same, with positive results. Out of almost 50,000 employees, only a handful have fallen ill. “Everything we’re doing seems to be working,” the LP manager says.

April 2020 Update

The economic downturn has savaged retail businesses, though stores with significant online operations have been able to keep some operations going. That is the case for a U.S.-based clothing retailer with close to 1,000 corporate-run brick-and-mortar locations throughout North America, as well as franchised locations globally.

The outbreak in China led the retailer to shut down its operations there, with closures elsewhere cascading as the virus crossed borders. On 17 March 2020, all North American stores closed.

The clothier furloughed more than 30,000 cashiers, floor staff, district managers, and regional managers. Each was paid for two or three weeks to stay home, retaining their benefits and with a promise of a job after the pandemic. About 150 stores remained open to assist in fulfilling online orders, saving shipping costs by assigning fulfillment to locations closest to the purchaser. The stores are closed to the public.

The company’s distribution centers remain open, with short closures caused by illness or local mandates, to serve the robust online market. Staff are provided with masks and gloves, which they are strongly encouraged to wear. If staff do not feel well, they are urged to stay home. If they feel nervous about working, they are urged to stay home. If they want to leave early, they are encouraged to go home. The brick-and-mortar stores have picked up some of the slack from the distribution centers, says a senior loss prevention manager for the retailer.

When the outbreak began, the retailer would close a facility or cancel the current shift when there was an illness. The area would then be deep-cleaned and reopened. Now the company constantly cleans the centers with large industrial machines as well as cleaning personnel. Portable washing stations and sanitizer abound, social distancing is enforced, and individual water bottles have supplanted the communal water cooler. If someone gets sick, the area gets another cleaning and the healthy staff resume work immediately.

Before entering a production facility, staff receive a temperature check via a thermal-imaging camera. If someone’s temperature is high, they see a nurse who uses a forehead thermometer to take another reading and determine fitness for duty. Stores received forehead thermometers so entering staff could test themselves. Staff are also trusted to answer questions that indicate if they were unfit for work, such as whether they have experienced body aches or shortness of breath.

Since people can be scrupulous with hygiene but forget that their cell phone may be contaminated, the company is exploring supplying staff with stylus pens to minimize touching their phones.

Almost all travel has been scrapped, but the loss prevention manager was able to travel with a physician on a corporate jet to a distribution center to provide ideas for safety upgrades. Though local officials have tried to shut down facilities, the manager says, those facilities remain open because “we are meticulous about cleaning.”

Like many other companies, the retailer takes care of its staff first. Executives take turns buying meals for distribution center staff, and sometimes provide food for their families.

Headquarters is mostly closed, except for a few personnel in security, the mailroom, and a few other areas. A campus of about 800 now hosts only 20 employees. Contract security officer coverage has been cut in half. To minimize touching of common items, doors are propped open, both in office spaces and at distribution centers, which raises the issue of safety versus security.

As of mid-April 2020, one of the most pressing issues was how to deal safely with returns. The retailer has contracted with a lab that will contaminate samples of the company’s clothing to determine how long COVID-19 will live on the surface. Then it will test a UV light, a steamer, and a special spray to see if, how well, and quickly they destroy the virus. A workable solution will give staff ease of mind to handle returns—which are frequent given the store’s liberal return policy.


Michael Gips, JD, CPP, CSyP, CAE, is the principal of Global Insights in Professional Security, LLC, a firm that helps security providers and executives develop cutting-edge content, assert thought leadership, and heighten brand awareness. Gips was previously Chief Global Knowledge Officer at ASIS International, with responsibility for Editorial Services, Learning, Certification, Standards & Guidelines, and the CSO Center for Leadership & Development. Before that, as an editor for ASIS’s Security Management magazine, he wrote close to 1,000 articles and columns on virtually every topic in security. In his early career he was an attorney who worked on death-penalty cases.

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