“The formula has always been you create inventory, borrow against the inventory and then sell the inventory,” he said. But when you can’t sell the inventory because no shops are open and no one is buying, the whole chain falls apart. Already, Mr. Chirico said, his stores had accepted their clothing for spring — which is now sitting in darkened rooms. Online, some already have sale prices on new merchandise. (About two-thirds of L.L. Beans sales are online, directly to consumers; Mr. Smith said business was “holding on,” but was still “down 40 percent.”) Either way, the full value of the products will never be recouped.
Many department stores have simply stopped accepting spring orders, sending them directly back to designers without payment, though the designer has already paid the production costs. Small companies are having to consider the possibility of bankruptcy.
“I don’t think anyone would step in if there was an orderly long-term change as people migrate from stores and do more online shopping,” said Jay Sole, a retail analyst at the investment bank UBS. “But if we’re going to a very fast disorderly change in the retail landscape, I think some of these retailers could be deemed too big to fail.”
It began on Wednesday, when the Council of Fashion Designers of America contacted Ms. Burch and asked her to lead the initiative. The American Apparel and Footwear Association was already on board. Ms. Burch in turn contacted over 20 executives to create a working group, including executives from Ralph Lauren, Nordstrom, Saks and Tom Ford International. The next day, the National Retail Federation, an advocacy group for more than a century, came on board. Mr. Smith said he had “never seen anything like” the coordination taking place across the industry. During multiple group chats, three targets were agreed upon.
First, they would ask for financing loans for real estate companies, so brands and department stores could have their rent forgiven until they could reopen. Second, they would ask for grants that cover at least 80 percent of employee salaries if they were kept on payroll. And finally, they would request tariff and duty relief for the next 12 months.
“Retail after the tariffs was already struggling,” said Deborah Weinswig, founder of Coresight Research, an advisory and research firm that specializes in retail and technology. “You’ve taken a weakened industry and you’re weakening it even further. I’m apolitical but overall, we haven’t seen the support we’ve needed for U.S. retail from the U.S. government.”