The Candid Voice in Retail Technology: Objective Insights, Pragmatic Advice

COVID-19 Is A Chance To Show Who We Are


What the heck do you write for a newsletter in the middle of a once-in-a-lifetime catastrophe? Originally, Brian and I thought a good topic to cover this week would be preparing eCommerce operations for the flood of orders coming in from bored, self-quarantined people in the coming weeks. But things are playing out differently, and the story is way bigger than that.

It all started when I was asked to comment for a news piece at 8 PM on a Friday night. I get even more unfiltered after hours (yes, it’s possible!), and this is the kind of thing I say.

“Now is our opportunity to rise as a nation and help each other, even as we protect ourselves. Corporations can demonstrate that they are good citizens, or they can harden opinions against them. It is totally up to them. Most haven’t been very responsive to the climate crisis. Now the results of their actions (or inactions) will have direct and immediate impact on the community.”

Yes, you might eventually read this quote in Apparel News, or, you might not. One never knows what will actually make it into a news story. But as I read it in the light of day after a good night’s sleep, I realized that unfiltered statement is oh-so-true.

Apple has closed all its stores. So has Patagonia. But even as Apple’s web site remains open for business, Patagonia has also stopped its eCommerce operations. In fact, among the literally hundreds of letters I have received from airlines, cable providers, retailers and newspapers, this one does stand out:

“We will temporarily close our stores, offices and other operations at the end of business on Friday, March 13, 2020. Employees who can work from home will do so. All Patagonia employees will receive their regular pay during the closure. We apologize that over the next two weeks, there will be delays on orders and customer-service requests. We ask for your understanding and patience. We will reassess and post an update on March 27, 2020.”

In other words, perennial good karma citizen Patagonia continues on-brand and on heart. If you recall, Patagonia donated all its proceeds from Black Friday sales in 2016 to environmental causes. That was real money, and really stood out. I am not an outdoorswoman, but I managed to find a tee shirt to buy that day. The company doesn’t get nearly enough press for its good deeds, I don’t think, but it’s clearly an example of long-term thinking and short-term good energy.

Now, queue the dark sounding music.

Whole Foods Market, once upon a time a company that built its brand on good karma and quality, is descending further into a darker place. Even as other companies plan to provide extra sick time and other needs for its employees that might become ill, Whole Foods Market is taking another approach.

According to Raw Story:

“In a letter sent to employees earlier this week, Whole Foods CEO John Mackey explained that one of the options available to workers was for them to “donate” their “paid time off” (pto) days to a pool that other workers could draw from.”

Note that Raw Story’s politics are generally to the left of me and probably most of you, and you will have to take its fawning over a certain presidential candidate with a grain of salt. But the letter is the letter and it’s more than a little disturbing. How does the richest man in the world allow one of his subsidiary companies to ask its employees to pool its sick days? The man who wants to use some of his billions to send us to Mars to live rather than help alter the environment’s current trajectory. You can be pretty sure that at the first sign of infection, something will change. Because this company sells FOOD - and there is nothing discretionary about that product. This is what the company website says it’s doing for its employees:

The health and wellness of our dedicated Team Members remains a top priority, and we’ve taken the following steps to support them during this time of uncertainty:

  • All Team Members diagnosed with COVID-19 or placed into quarantine will receive up to two weeks of pay.
  • We have relaxed our policy to allow Team Members to call out of work due to illness, without penalty.
  • We have increased funds available through our Team Member Emergency Fund, which is available to all Team Members faced with an unforeseeable emergency or critical situation. Amazon has committed an additional $1.6M to support the fund.
  • We have asked Team Members to cancel non-essential business travel (both domestic and international).
  • We have increased sanitation and cleanliness protocols in meeting rooms, Team Member gathering spaces, and office workstations across all stores, offices, and facilities to promote a safe and healthy work environment.

I guess if you’re sick longer than two weeks, you’ll have to use that voluntary pool of PTO and play musical chairs with others’ sick time. Or come into work and risk infecting fellow employees and shoppers. Talk about Icarus falling to earth. I’ll say it again: the company sells FOOD. You would think extra care was warranted.

So what does all this mean? It means, as I said to that reporter on Friday, it’s time to show the world what we are made of. Unless you sell toilet paper or Purell, it’s going to be a pretty lousy quarter. That’s just a fact. Grocers will not have a lousy quarter, but they’ll be racing to keep up with BOPIS, home delivery and all eyes will be on them, in the event they become the source of infection.

So given these realities, it might be a good idea to be a good corporate citizen. The government seems prepared to help its citizens, but it really is on our retail industry to help protect its workers and its customers. All the nice emails in the world won’t change anything if no one steps up in a bigger way.

These times are going to be lousy. Still, as the Beatles once sang: “Take a sad song and make it better.”

Consumers won’t forget. Employees really won’t forget. And the world is watching. After all, in quarantine, we don’t have a whole lot else to do.


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Articles & Opinions March 15, 2020
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