The National Retail Federation wants clarification on the word “essential.” Following a letter on Wednesday (March 18) asking for the federal government to consider the retail community in any stimulus packages, the NRF was back on Thursday (March 19) asking the Trump administration for guidance on several issues as stores continue to slash hours, payrolls and locations in the coronavirus pandemic’s wake.
“There remains a need for clear national guidance to resolve questions caused by a number of conflicting state and local orders that are triggering consumer, worker and business confusion, leading to cascading negative impacts on communities across the country,” wrote Matthew Shay, CEO of the trade association. “When state and local governments give blanket orders to ‘close non-essential retail’ and ‘limit mass gatherings to 50 people,’ it causes panic and alarm. Consumers then swarm retailers, which exhausts existing supplies and overwhelms employees.”
The NRF wants verification that bans gatherings of over 50 people will exempt large-format grocery stores, big-box retailers and wholesale clubs. The trade group is also asking for grocery stores, pharmacy and health services, convenience stores, gas stations, hardware stores, restaurants and more to be explicitly declared as essential businesses.
Additionally, the association raised the alarm that some localities are deeming pet stores and key parts of supply chains like distribution centers, transportation-logistics companies and truck drivers as "not essential.”
The COVID-19 virus is putting the brakes on what the NRF expected to be a strong year for U.S. retailers. Just three weeks ago, the group called for a 2020 sales increase of between 3.5 and 4.1 percent, topping $3.9 trillion. The number is notable for the size of the total retail industry, which will be hard to bail out at anything close to that level, even for a few months.
In releasing the NRF’s upbeat 2020 forecast in February, Shay said that “there are always wild cards we cannot control like [the] coronavirus and a politically charged election year. But when it comes to the fundamentals, our economy is sound and consumers continue to lead the way.”
As of Thursday (March 19), The Trump administration was discussing a stimulus package of around $1 trillion to aid the airline industry, small businesses and individual Americans hit by the pandemic’s economic fallout.
Still, the NRF and others say that’s not enough. Harvard University Economist Kenneth Rogoff, a former head of the International Monetary Fund, told Quartz that $750 billion or so of fiscal stimulus would be a good start. But he noted that hotels, airlines, restaurants, small businesses and low-income earners will need aid.
“The policy response needs to be massive,” Rogoff wrote in an email.