Essential? Retailers Like Guitar Center and Michaels Think They Are

At some Guitar Center stores, employees are still allowing customers to try out models of guitars. Dillard’s, a department store chain popular in the South, is still welcoming shoppers looking for clothing and makeup. And Michaels, the arts and crafts chain, says it is keeping many of its stores open to provide supplies to parents teaching their homebound children. “We are here for the makers,” the retailer said in an email to one concerned customer.

In states hit hard by the coronavirus, like New York and California, governors and mayors have mandated the closure of all but the obviously essential stores, like supermarkets and pharmacies. And the Department of Homeland Security has laid out guidelines for businesses across the country to follow when deciding whether to stay open, even in regions not known to be hot spots for the virus. The agency is careful to note that its definition of a “critical” work force is not an official standard, leaving it up to corporations to decide for themselves.

Given this latitude, retailers have kept thousands of stores open, even as health experts warn that the virus is likely to spread more widely across the country in the coming weeks. Several retailers — like Sears, Kmart, and Joann Fabric and Craft Stores — have provided employees with letters they can share, arguing that their businesses are essential.

That some retail stores are staying open while other businesses have closed reflects the piecemeal approach to combating the pandemic in the United States. There are emergency orders limiting business to essential retailers in about half the country, but much of the South and West has no such government restrictions.

The Retail Industry Leaders Association has asked the federal government for clearer guidelines.

The decisions have left many retail employees with reservations about showing up for work, where they often don’t have masks, gloves or hand sanitizers, and with questions about their stores’ cleaning procedures.

Some corporate leaders may see little choice but to keep operating. Guitar Center and Joann, for example, had relatively high levels of debt heading into the health crisis, credit analysts say. Closing for the next few months, while burning through cash to make debt payments, could be especially painful. But each company is taking a different approach. Guitar Center has closed 75 percent of its stores, while Joann has closed fewer than 10 percent.

Sears, which emerged from bankruptcy protection last year and had been closing dozens of stores heading into this winter, has decided to stay open to provide “essential products and services during this crisis,” such as appliances, a company executive said in a statement. The retailer is also seeing an “increased interest in fitness equipment and entertainment to keep kids busy.”

Some retailers say preserving jobs and sales is also a worthwhile goal — a sentiment shared by President Trump, who said on Tuesday that he wanted the shutdowns to lift by April 12.

Wade Miquelon, the chief executive of Joann, said in an interview, “When we’re talking about unemployment rates that could be at epic proportions, I hope we can look back and say, ‘We’re not perfect, but we did the best we could and maybe did the right thing.’”

At Guitar Center in recent days, customers have been trying out guitars, then putting them back on the shelves after touching them, said two employees at two stores in different states, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

A spokeswoman for Guitar Center said the company had “increased the frequency of store cleanings, with particular focus on instruments and in interactive areas.”

Joann has closed about 70 of its 860 stores, leaving some employees concerned about their and customers’ health. An Ohio store manager who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of worries over job security said that location was out of cleaning supplies that are effective for proper disinfecting, and that staff members were hesitant to take a 30-day leave of absence because it would be largely unpaid.

The company said that it was shipping more cleaning supplies to stores this week and that, in the interim, employees could buy “approved supplies” and would be reimbursed.

Mr. Miquelon said that the definition of essential varied by states and municipalities, but that Joann counted under “several categories.”

The company provides products for small businesses like those on Etsy and has been promoting material that volunteers can make into masks and gowns for health care providers, he said. The health care efforts were outlined Friday in a release, which also advertised temporary sewing stations at stores.

“What we’re doing now is akin to some of the wartime efforts,” Mr. Miquelon said.

More than half of Joann stores are restricted to curbside pickups and shipping from stores. But Mr. Miquelon noted that e-commerce orders could take four to five days and said he did not intend to follow electronics retailers like Best Buy and GameStop in limiting all shopping to curbside pickups.

Joann, based in Hudson, Ohio, was looking at new protections like masks and gloves for its store employees, and protocols for social distancing at cash registers, he said.

“I get employees have anxiety now, but we’re not making anybody work,” Mr. Miquelon said. “We are trying to do everything we can to help customers, help the supply chain, keep people safe and make sure people have a job and food on the table when this thing is over.”

Joann, which employs about 22,000 in its stores, has granted more than 500 leave-of-absence requests, a spokeswoman said on Tuesday. Closed stores are paying typical wages to affected employees for the next two weeks, she said.

A letter from Joann management given to employees to share described the chain’s “Essential Business Activities” as a supplier to home-based businesses and health care professionals. The letters for Sears and Kmart employees says that “essential businesses including hardware stores are permitted to stay open,” and that staff are therefore exempt from emergency closure orders.

RH, the high-end furniture chain formerly known as Restoration Hardware, is still operating a busy call center in Tracy, Calif., known internally as a “Delight Center,” even after closing its stores, said an employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect their job. Employees who have ask
ed to work from home were told that it was too costly and difficult to set up. After an employee was stopped on the way to the center by law enforcement and told to go home, the company gave employees a letter to show the police in the future, the person said.

The letter, which was shared with The New York Times, said RH employees were subject to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s “exception for individuals who were needed to work in order to maintain continuity of operations of the federal critical infrastructure sectors.”

RH said in a statement that its call center was a “critical” part of the company’s business. The company added that it was taking precautions by spacing out workers in cubicles. And if the employees are worried about going to work, they can stay home and use paid time off, the company said. Or they can opt not to take paid time off but still receive benefits.

The debate over keeping stores open has spilled onto social media. Joann’s recently deleted comments on its Instagram account and disabled further posts. An Instagram post from Michaels on Tuesday that shared a “Boredom buster idea!” led to responses like: “Protect your employees. Close your stores.”

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