An employee disinfecting an IWC store in Beijing

While across Europe and the United States manufacturing companies are returning to business and retailers are reopening stores, it’s still unclear to many people, bombarded by often confusing information, how the coronavirus is actually transmitted.

“First of all, the virus is almost exclusively transmitted between people via respiratory droplets. All the other forms of possible transmission are decisively minor. Indeed, there is no scientific evidence of transmissions through handles, clothes or other items,” explained Carlo Federico Perno, professor of microbiology and virology at the University of Milano and director of Niguarda Hospital’s department of laboratory medicine. “The virus actually survives on surfaces but it cannot grow outside the human body. It can persist on surfaces for a certain amount of time according to the type of surface. For example, it survives more on porous materials, including cardboard, but in a dry environment it can persist only a few hours. While in a wet environment, it can survive longer.”

According to research conducted by scientists at the National Institutes of Health and published in the New England Journal of Medicine, the virus lives for two hours on copper, but its viral load drastically decreases after that. Its lifespan on cardboard is 24 hours, while its viral load is halved in five hours. The virus lives for 48 hours on stainless steel but its viral load drops after six hours, while it lasts for 72 hours on plastic, although its load reduces by half after seven hours.   

“The chance of getting infected by touching a piece of clothing in a store is very low. This can basically happen only if an infected person with a high viral load — which means someone that has strong symptoms — gets into a store, touches a product with their hands dirty with respiratory secretions and only a few minute later another person touches the same product and the secretions with the hands and then touches their mouth, nose or eyes. As you can understand, this is pretty unlikely,” Perno added, putting the focus on another, probably more important aspect — the ventilation of indoor spaces.

“I think it should be more important to put the focus on changing rooms since there is scientific evidence that the virus survives in the air indoors. If an infected customer tries on something in the changing room and then after a few minutes someone else enters the same changing room there is a chance that this second customer might get infected. For this reason, it might be useful to provide changing rooms with ultraviolet lamps and air-disinfection units,” he said.

Aware of the issue, Italian department store Rinascente is putting in place a system to clean changing rooms after each use. “Instead of adopting technologies, we chose to implement the cleaning of the changing rooms with a dedicated team which will constantly take care of the disinfection, also through the use of sprays,” said Rinascente chief executive officer Pierluigi Cocchini.

In order to guarantee a safe shopping experience for customers, as well as the ultimate safety of employees, Rinascente, which will reopen its Italian stores on May 18 in line with the government’s policies, in the past few months took part in a roundtable discussion organized by the university Politecnico di Torino that aimed to produce a document offering guidelines for different business sectors. Cocchini described the document as “encyclopedic.”

In particular, he explained, Rinascente created a document of more general information on COVID-19 for both employees and visitors, “which explains what the virus is and which highlights the importance of personal responsibility to prevent infections,” but also specific protocols for each store and the company’s headquarters.

“We defined a protocol for back office employees, where, for example, we regulate the entry flows, but also we determine the number of people admitted in the staff changing rooms and where we ask our employees to reach the workplace already wearing their uniforms,” said Cocchini, revealing that the company has already invested over 1 million euros to buy face masks, gloves and hand sanitizers. “At the same time, we defined a protocol for the salesforce and consumers.”

A specific number of shoppers will be permitted to be on each floor, in accordance with its surface area; visitors will have to respect a social distance of two meters, or about 6 feet, and a space of between 5 and 7 square meters, or 53 to 75 square feet. “Our team will have the task to have customers respecting these rules on the different floors,” Cocchini said.

To limit access, each Rinascente store will keep only one or two entrances open to the public, while on the beauty floor, visitors won’t be allowed to use fragrance and makeup testers, which only the staff will be able to handle while wearing gloves.

According to Cocchini, Rinascente — which due to the pandemic had to postpone the launch of its online store from March to early June — also organized a system to sanitize returns.

“Returns may have to be more carefully scrutinized to see if the integrity of the packaging is broken,” agreed Karen Giberson, president of The Accessories Council. “I haven’t seen, nor issued, a set of guidelines at this point — mostly because it’s so diverse. Really because accessories covers so many different categories, there is not a set answer. Some things are much easier to disinfect and clean than others. Soft goods, like scarves, follow the same protocol as apparel. Jewelry is a little easier to clean and recondition. I would guess in a lot of cases, if you get it and don’t like it, the product is not being used and tried on like a pair of jeans — there is less contact with the body.”

E-commerce giant Yoox Net-a-porter Group also introduced measures to guarantee that returns are safe.

According to a company spokesperson, the e-tailer has implemented strict sanitization procedures that are in line with authority guidelines. Any returned packages are handled by employees wearing Personal Protective Equipment, including face masks and gloves, to ensure hygiene.

This is part of YNAP’s stringent health and safety measures in place for the operational teams to safeguard their colleagues. They include temperature control checks on entry; thermal cameras for multiple temperature control checks during the day; staggered entry/exit times and breaks; one-way systems to ensure social distancing; alternate workstations; gloves and face masks, as well as intensive cleaning and sanitization, with more technological innovations to follow.

Guaranteeing that products are safe and clean is not just an issue that retailers have to face, but involves the whole supply chain.

”Several studies are being developed [about the persistence of the virus on surfaces] but they haven’t been completed yet, which means they are not fully reliable. We think that for our industry this issue is less impactful than for other categories. However, we have set preventive measures aimed in particular to protect the health of our employees, as well as of our counterparts,” said Ivana Ciabatti, president of Confindustria Federorafi, the association that represents Italian jewelers and goldsmiths. “If each player of the distribution and sale chain respects the basic rules aimed at stopping the transmission of the virus set for our products, I think that risks will be very low and almost reducible to zero.”

While textile, tanneries and footwear associations declined to comment, Assopellettieri general director and Mipel chief executive officer Danny D’Alessandro said that, while they haven’t received specific instructions by the government, the association he represents set some recommended measures for their members to adopt.

“We are suggesting our members to implement disinfection systems in the logistic departments,” D’Alessandro said. “Some of our associates are already disinfecting with hot steam systems all the products transiting through the companies’ warehouse, both in and out.”