The Qurate Retail Group has committed $29 million toward aiding victims of COVID-19, organizations fighting the disease, relief efforts, small businesses and its own workers.
“The deployment of this amount of resources in a short period is by far the biggest commitment we have ever made,” Mike George, president and chief executive officer of Qurate Retail Inc., told WWD. “Now more than ever, we are intensifying our efforts to help address urgent needs created by this pandemic, leveraging our financial resources, our broadcast networks and digital properties, the strong relationships we enjoy with our customers, and our heritage of supporting small businesses.”
“Early on, through our operations overseas, we saw this crisis and the magnitude of it unfold. So we made some early decisions about using our airways and the power of our digital reach to connect with our customer base in a really special way in this moment. It’s a broad program.”
Qurate Retail is using a combination of its own money, donations, in-kind gifts and fund-raising activities in the U.S. and abroad to reach the $29 million commitment, including supporting health, research and food organizations, as well as individual and small businesses impacted through its multichannel platform of television broadcasts, web sites, apps and social pages.
Of the $29 million, $19 million has been earmarked to supplement employee health-care costs associated with COVID-19, and additional pay and benefits for employees continuing to work at Qurate Retail studios and fulfillment centers.
The remaining $10 million is a combination of monetary and in-kind gifts from Qurate Retail’s brands – including grants to Qurate Retail employees most impacted by Covid-19 – and donations being raised by Qurate Retail’s QVC, HSN, Zulily, Ballard Designs, Frontgate, Garnet Hill, Grandin Road and Ryllace brands with customers, employees and vendors for Meals on Wheels, No Kid Hungry, Cancer and Careers, the National Emergencies Trust in the U.K., the German Center for Infection Research, and leading Italian research universities. Qurate Retail has operations in the U.S., the U.K., Germany, Italy and Japan.
Qurate Retail will also spotlight approximately 20 small businesses, selected in conjunction with the National Retail Federation Foundation, across its selling channels. These businesses will be able to tap the company for advice on solving COVID-19 related problems through a “virtual mentoring initiative.”
In other relief efforts, the corporation is providing a grant to Nest’s Personal Protective Equipment Purchase Initiative, helping artisan businesses survive by shifting production to PPE. Qurate will also air COVID-19 public service announcements from the nonprofit Ad Council. Nest is a female-founded nonprofit that trains and provides resources to artisan women. The Qurate Retail Group Fellowship, a skills-based volunteer program administered by Nest, is being expanded so Qurate employees can participate in short-term consulting assignments with artisans.
Considering its business model, the $13.5 billion Qurate Inc. is in a better position to navigate the health crisis than brick-and-mortar retailers. “We are in a much better situation, but at the start of this we didn’t know if our customer would have any appetite to buy,” George said. “She’s not buying as much apparel and accessories, jewelry and color cosmetics. Within fashion, she is buying comfort wear and casualwear.
“You see a shift to all things home,” George added. “She is responding strongly to our food offerings and exercise equipment. People are trying to stay fit.”
George also cited vitamins, games, puzzles, pool equipment and outdoor patio furnishings as selling. “People are taking advantage of outdoor space so we’ve seen strong growth in outdoor patio at Frontgate, and gardening is amazing at QVC.”
Qurate, said George, has “two basic principles, to keep our team as safe as possible and operate our business as long as we can keep our team members safe. Everyone who can possibly work from home we want to work from home.”
Among Qurate’s total workforce of 25,000, several thousand office workers are working at home. Customer service agents, normally in a call center, now take calls at home.
“That’s left us with two communities — a skeletal crew to operate our live studios, and the folks in our fulfillment centers which employ about 10,000 to 12,000 workers,” George said. “To those still working at Qurate facilities, hourly workers have received a $2 an hour increase and salaried workers have received a 10 percent increase.” The increases extend through the end of May when they will be reassessed.
“If the job requires you to be on-site but you are not comfortable working there, you can feel free to stay at home, and still get 50 percent of your pay for a couple of weeks,” George said. In any given week, about 15 to 20 percent of this part of the workforce opts to stay home.
There are currently no plans for mass layoffs or furloughs though the company doesn’t rule out such actions. Those working at the HSN and QVC outlets, five in total, and the 20 Cornerstand Brands stores have been furloughed with up to 80 hours of pay and continuing benefits.
Before anyone enters a Qurate Retail facility, they undergo temperature screening, receive a mask if they don’t have one, and must stay six feet apart from anyone. Where Qurate doesn’t have temperature screening, self-checking and/or reviewing the company’s health questionnaire is required. “To truly enable that, it requires a fundamental reworking of all operations,” George said. For example, when a return is received, it sits outside the facility for 24 hours before it’s touched by a return processor, George said. Some models and show hosts and a production crew are at the studios, though no guests are allowed.
George wears a second professional hat as chairman of the National Retail Federation. “We have formed a number of working groups with cross-sectional team members from a variety of stores, to establish best practices” to manage through the pandemic. “We’ve talked with the White House on how do we get to a national framework,” to guide retailers. While recognizing each state, city and county have their particular challenges, “The more cohesive the response, the better off we will be,” George said.