Coronavirus

How Neiman Marcus Got Into The Medical Mask-Making Business

How can I help?

It is the question that millions of Americans have been asking themselves for the last few weeks, as COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, has engulfed the U.S. For some — medical workers, public health officials, Instacart shoppers and other essential services providers — the answer is obvious. They help by showing up every day despite risk to themselves to make sure that the wheels stay on while we as a society grapple with a once-in-a-generation challenge, and they deserve our thanks and praise.

For anyone whose services have not been deemed essential, however, it is easy to feel powerless and like the only things to do are sit still, don’t go out, skip spring break and watch “Tiger King” on Netflix in the name of social solidarity. And that, actually, isn’t nothing — by simply complying with stay-at-home orders, everyone can do their part to bring this new miserable experience to a close more quickly.

But at Neiman Marcus and Jo-Ann Stores, it occurred to their teams that there was more they could do in this time when both of their physical retail operations are on hiatus. Nationwide, healthcare workers are facing a personal protective equipment (PPE) shortage that is quickly becoming critical. And that was something the two very different retailers could take on together by combining their core capabilities in procurement, sewing and logistics to produce non-surgical-grade PPE, including masks, scrubs and gowns for front-line healthcare providers and patients.

“This really is a kind of a grassroots effort,” Neiman Marcus Senior Vice President of Supply Chain and Group Operations Willis Weirich told Karen Webster in a recent conversation. “One of our associates brought the idea forward that we could use these sewing skills we have in house and find a way to make this personal protection equipment for the need that is out there in the communities in which we all live and work.”

All they needed, he noted, was material to sew and approved patterns to work from, something Jo-Ann Fabric had been pulling together into easy-to-assemble kits with patterns approved by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) so that trained seamstresses could get to cracking out the masks and surgical scrubs immediately.

The all-cotton material and patterns chosen are in line with guidelines provided by the Providence Hospital System in Washington, Jo-Ann Fabric’s Vice President of Business Development Stephen Caution told PYMNTS, and the companies are ready to roll on scrub and mask production. Medical gowns are going to be an opportunity in the future, he noted, because the gowns require a specific waterproof fabric that Jo-Ann Fabric is still “chasing down.”

The companies are also working collaboratively, Caution noted, to standardize the efforts at PPE production that are going on in shops nationwide.

“I think if you look in the public domain, there are a lot of patterns out there and different thoughts on what’s most helpful,” he said. “We are actively working with the CDC and some other very large health institutions to try and standardize what is the most effective for everyone to be making. And once we’re able to get alignment there, we can help spread the word as much as possible.”

Weirich told Webster that most of this is an educational exercise happening at scale in real time for Neiman Marcus, Jo-Ann Fabric and countless other private companies that are stepping out of their core comfort zones to apply their skill sets to a wholly novel set of problems.

This whole operation, Weirich noted, came together at the end of last week, and Neiman Marcus staff, who are highly specialized tailors, have learned over the course of a few days to mass-produce medical gear while spaced a safe difference from each other and maintaining incredibly stringent sanitation guidelines from the CDC.

“We’re able to leverage people’s skills in different ways, which I think just speaks to the skill and the craft that these associates have, which is something that you typically see in the final product. And it’s been pretty amazing to watch them do this,” Weirich said, noting that in house, they pride themselves on the knowledge that they can’t make doctors’ and nurses jobs any easier in this difficult time, but they can make sure they are in the best-tailored scrubs in history.

It was a sentiment echoed by Caution, who said that once the severity of the situation at hand for first responders was apparent in regard to PPE, it was hard not to feel compelled to do what they uniquely could within their own supply chain to help.

“When you see the stories of what’s happening on the front lines and how critical supplies are right now to the folks that are dealing with the most critically ill individuals, I think for us to be able to play just a small part in fixing that is extremely important,” Cation said.

With the materials now going to four different Neiman’s alteration facilities — Dallas, Los Angeles, New Jersey and South Florida — and associates hard at work flipping them into medical gear, the work is already beginning. The companies are still getting a feel for how much they can produce per unit of fabric and how fast they can produce it. They are also fielding requests, and lots of them, for materials from all kinds of organizations.

The next step is tapping their supply chain and logistics experts to get the materials they are making into the hands of the people who most need them as fast as possible.

But, Weirich noted, as hard as it is, they aren’t alone, because he said the most heartening thing about the last few weeks is that when things fall apart, as they have, a line quickly forms to start picking them up and putting them back together.

“People are actively trying to find a way to contribute to this cause whether that’s figuring out how to logistically get freight from one place to another, or making supplies, or coordinating action,” he said. “There are people that are trying to step up in a lot of different ways, and that is how we’re all going to get through this. Working together.”

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