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Retailers Step Up Katrina Aid

As the chaos from Hurricane Katrina rolls on and the death toll mounts, retailers continue to try to locate missing employees, assess store damages and establish relief programs for thousands of displaced workers.

NEW YORK — As the chaos from Hurricane Katrina rolls on and the death toll mounts, retailers continue to try to locate missing employees, assess store damages and establish relief programs for thousands of displaced workers.

Wal-Mart said 93 percent of its 34,000 employees from the hurricane region are safe or working in other company units. That leaves 2,380 associates at large. The company, as of Friday, had 15 stores closed.

Wal-Mart activated an online emergency contact registry for customers and associates to e-mail, post and search for messages from family and loved ones. Associates and the public can go to any Wal-Mart, Sam’s Club or Neighborhood Market and use store kiosks and gift registries to access the service. The registry also can be accessed at home via the company’s Web sites.

The company, which has committed $17 million to the relief effort, is giving associates the opportunity to apply for jobs in regions where they’ve temporarily or permanently resettled. More than 1,000 people took advantage of the offer, said Melissa O’Brien, a spokeswoman.

“They’re eligible for up to $1,000 in cash,” said O’Brien. “That will take them to the end of the month. We’ve offered them a job wherever they are. That’s a great relief.”

Gap Inc. said Friday that 91 employees were still missing, and it had received reports of tragedies. A two-year-old child of one of Gap’s workers was lost in the hurricane, and one worker lost four family members, according to Robin Carr, Gap’s director of media relations and corporate communications.

More than 1,300 Gap employees have been affected by the hurricane. The company wants them to know about Gap-sponsored assistance such as housing and clothing allowances and additional pay, and urges them to call Gap or to visit the corporate Web site, gapinc.com, and click on Hurricane Katrina Relief.

At one time, 70 Gap stores were knocked out, but as of Friday, there were just 22 still out.

“We are going to reemploy our employees anywhere in the country they want to be reemployed,” said Carr.

As part of the corporation’s relief efforts, all Gap, Banana Republic, Old Navy and outlet locations are offering a 15 percent discount on merchandise through Oct. 31 to customers from areas impacted by Hurricane Katrina, provided they show either an Alabama, Louisiana or Mississippi identification card.

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Gap already has committed $1 million to disaster relief through Gap Foundation and is providing a double-match for all employee donations to the American Red Cross.

J.C. Penney had about 900 people working in stores in the hurricane’s path. “We’ve reached about half of them,” said a spokesman, Tim Lyons. “We have a hotline and are encouraging people to call in. We’re working with the police and there’s a great deal of communication between the various authorities involved and our people.”

Saks Inc. is trying to learn the whereabouts of 30 New Orleans associates and is working with local law enforcement and other agencies to locate them. The company has been in contact with about 200 New Orleans associates.

“All of the associates we have heard from are safe, although the majority report extensive damage to their homes and property,” the company said in a statement. “At this time, the New Orleans Saks Fifth Avenue store remains closed indefinitely.”

Charlotte-based Cato Corp. still has a few associates unaccounted for, and of the 125 stores that were initially affected by the storm (of which 50 remained closed on Aug. 31), 11 are currently closed. The majority of the 11 are expected to be closed for up to six months.

However, no significant supply chain disruption is expected for the apparel and footwear industry as a result of the hurricane, with imports of this merchandise mostly coming through West Coast, and to a lesser extent, East Coast ports, according to a Prudential Equity Group research report issued Friday.

However, the report added, “We have concerns about prolonged store closures and cutbacks in discretionary spending.” Rebuilding efforts, according to Prudential, will increase consumer spending, but apparel and footwear purchases will be “a low priority and mostly just in necessity.”