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COVID-19 Case Study: Clothing Retailer Experiments with UV Fabric Cleaning

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

7 August 2020 Update

In recent months, the retailer has had to deal with clothing that might harbor virus particles, either from shoppers touching or trying on clothes, or from buyers returning purchased articles. Their solution has been to both let the garments sit for 24 hours—there is evidence that the virus ceases to be viable after that time—and to steam the clothes in large machines.

But the steamers have caused various problems. First, they create extremely high humidity, which makes the stockrooms muggy and the public area of the store hot and uncomfortable. They also cause problems with the stores’ HVAC systems.

The steamers also strain utilities. Larger units need their own water line and require a higher-voltage electric supply. Moreover, they are expensive to install and maintain.

Now the retailer is exploring disinfectants that operate by ultraviolet (UV) light. This solution is less expensive, easier to install, operate, and maintain, and it plugs into a regular outlet. One hurdle is finding a unit that can clean a garment completely without a person having to turn it inside out. Three options are being considered, says the corporate loss prevention (LP) manager. The one raising the most concern requires adding ozone to the UV light to ensure that it kills the virus. “We have to do added testing to make sure there are no negative health impacts,” says the loss prevention manager. The company plans to deploy safety professionals to test the devices at distribution centers, to include conducting air-quality testing in enclosed areas.

In the past month, the company has gotten the mask situation under control. It has amassed 9 million masks in just one distribution center and has found a Chinese supplier that can accommodate large orders. The LP manager is conscientious about replenishing masks, not stockpiling them (the company uses 1 million masks per week). “We will probably donate some of the 9 million,” the LP manager says.

Most stores are open, with exceptions in New York and California. Pedestrian traffic and sales have dipped since the last update, presumably because many areas—especially in the United States—are seeing spikes in new infections. Online sales remain strong, however.

More employees have gotten sick—about 310, compared to 88 at the last update. The vast majority of the infected work at stores. That may be because the distribution centers are constantly deep-cleaned. The LP manager, who had just visited a distribution center, notes that “The electrostatic sprayer is constantly running.”

Social distancing, mask requirements, and contact tracing remain in effect at distribution centers. Posters in English and Spanish constantly remind staff to behave responsibly. A COVID task force also helps enforce safety requirements in the centers.

Offices remain operating with essential staff only, about one-eighth of the corporate and administrative staff. Staff must wear masks at all times when they are not at their workstations. Security compiles a weekly report on the number of employees who show up on the various corporate campuses and which department they represent. The rest of the office staff will work at home at least until the end of the year.

Anyone entering an office building must pass through a temperature reader manufactured by Turing, of San Mateo, California. The system, which resembles an iPad, features an outline of a person’s head and shoulders, so employees know where to position themselves for a proper reading. A red box appears if the person exceeds the temperature at which the system is set. The corporate LP manager touts the tool as both accurate and economical. Distribution centers use more elaborate screening systems, but the LP department finds the provider difficult to deal with.

Winter will provide a significant challenge to fever screeners, the LP manager predicts. When people come in from the cold, their body temperatures will have dropped. If the employee has to thaw out before getting a reading, and that delay eats into his or her shift, unionized workers will be entitled to payment during this idle time.

The retailer uses walk-through magnetometers at the centers, and it will be adding additional magnetometers as demand increases for the Christmas season. It is exploring a new system by Garrett that embeds a thermal camera in the magnetometer to perform temperature readings at the same time as metal detection.

1 July 2020 Update

Since the previous update, the retailer has reopened almost all stores, with increased physical distancing, directionally marked pathways, and the removal of bulky displays. Customer traffic has been strong. While this is good for sales and the company’s image, the requirement that all store staff and customers cover their mouths and noses has strained the retailer’s surgical mask supply.

Stores are handing out about a million masks per week, says the corporate loss prevention manager. “Our biggest challenge is to keep up inventory.” In the early days of the pandemic, company executives were quick to donate any extra masks to charities or medical facilities. But that meant stores had to keep scrambling to replenish their stock. “We are playing catch up,” says the corporate loss prevention manager. “We don’t want to stockpile, but we need to get a week ahead.”

Fortunately, the company has found new mask suppliers around the world. As stock has become more available, prices have dropped, so PPE acquisition hasn’t been as much of a drag on the bottom line. The LP executive expects stores to soon have a week’s worth of masks in inventory.

And reaction to the mask mandate has been positive, outside of a few customer complaints. The people most pleased about the policy? Parents of retail staffers, who appreciate that a large corporation is putting employee safety first.

Customers are obeying social distancing protocols as well—following directional lines, staying at queue markers at cashier stations, and otherwise keeping their distance. The few transgressors have been staff members, and HR has held them accountable. The LP executive says that between stores, offices, and production facilities, only 88 people out of 45,000 employees have gotten sick since the beginning of the pandemic, none of them fatally. The HR department does contact tracing on each occasion—putting staff on quarantine as needed—and not a single case has been traced back to a company facility. For example, one employee at headquarters was found to have contracted COVID-19 while on vacation in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, where he visited several bars.

The combination of lower store density, a person at the door distributing masks, social distancing, and fewer display items hasn’t translated into less shrinkage, however. “People are still stealing,” says the LP executive, pointing out that the retailer’s focus is on health and safety.

Headquarters staff are trickling back—the campus is about one-eighth full each workday—although only a few essential staff are required to report to the office. Staff must scan their badge at a single door upon arrival, but every interior door is propped open, with a security officer on guard. Guards at the main entrance ensure that arriving staff check in at the self-serve temperature reader. Located in a corner, the quick and easy device announces to the officer within earshot whether the worker’s temperature is acceptable or elevated. Compliance has been excellent, even when the officer has been off duty.

The company abandoned its experiment with having staff report their health condition on an app before reporting to work. Executives found that it didn’t add much to their health and safety posture.

Because occupancy is so low, there has been no need to install partitions or sneeze guards—except in security, where at least half the staff tend to come in, including GSOC operators and analysts. However, the county where the HQ is located has started to see a resurgence of COVID-19 cases after having started to reopen stores, restaurants, bars, and other facilities. Consequently, some corporate departments may cut back on the few people who do come to the office and require them to wear masks, says the LP professional.

Online business remains strong, and 100 retail stores remain designated as shipping sites only. All returns are quarantined for 24 hours as well as placed in steamers for disinfection. Though research indicates that the viable virus disappears from fabrics within 24 hours, the steamers are used as a belt and suspenders measure to reassure customers.

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.