More e-tailers are getting swept up in the coronavirus shutdown as restrictions in New Jersey and elsewhere make it harder for consumers to click while sequestered.
Businesses that are used to operating seamlessly across state borders in the U.S. are finding a patchwork of regulations and on-the-ground realities that are making it harder to keep up their usual services.
Already there has been a wave of confusion in California, where Gov. Gavin Newsom’s “safer at home” mandate, issued late last week, left businesses open or closed depending on where they operate and how big a given company is. There have also been shutdowns in Pennsylvania but e-commerce facilities in New York are allowed to continue to operate.
In New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy directed the state’s 9 million residents to stay at home until further notice, with some exceptions, including visits to the doctor and work. But people who can work from home are advised to and businesses that need to have people physically show up — like warehouses — were told to reduce staff to “the minimal number necessary to ensure that essential operations can continue.”
The luxury resale site The RealReal told shoppers: “In line with local guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19, we have temporarily closed our Bay Area warehouse and reduced staffing in our New Jersey warehouses. As a result, you may experience delays in the processing and shipping of your order. Currently, overnight and two-day shipping are not available.”
Net-a-porter tells visitors to its U.S. web site, “In line with local government guidelines, and for the health and safety of our community, we have temporarily closed our warehouse” in New Jersey. The e-commerce site said it is looking into alternative ways to serve customers.
Similarly, San Francisco-based styling service Stitch Fix said it closed its Bethlehem, Pa., distribution center, but has four other U.S. distribution centers to manage inventory and to serve clients.
In New York, only essential businesses are open. That includes food stores, hospitals and warehouses. The official guidance is “agnostic” about what type of warehouse can stay open, so fashion e-commerce facilities can keep going. But the general guidance also calls for even essential businesses to have people work remotely when possible and to ensure a sanitary workplace for people who do go to work.
Going into the COVID-19 crisis, e-commerce was seen as something of a saving grace for retailers forced to close their stores. But the various closures and a questionable consumer appetite for fashion right now given all the economic worries make for a more complicated picture.
E-commerce also still accounts for only about 11 percent of total retail sales — although considerably more than that in fashion. The infrastructure can only handle so much, even with Amazon looking to hire 100,000 people, Walmart trying to add 150,000 to its overall operations and so on.
Still, this is a moment for e-commerce to shine and many experts are watching closely to see if this is something of a tipping point for digital merchants, click-and-collect in-store programs and so on.
“This isn’t business as usual, and it’s a time of great stress and uncertainty,” said Jeff Bezos, chief executive officer of Amazon, in a letter to employees this week. “It’s also a moment in time when the work we’re doing is its most critical. We’ve changed our logistics, transportation, supply chain, purchasing, and third-party seller processes to prioritize stocking and delivering essential items like household staples, sanitizers, baby formula, and medical supplies. We’re providing a vital service to people everywhere, especially to those, like the elderly, who are most vulnerable. People are depending on us.”