The watchword in retail right now is “essential.” It is a critical issue for many retailers as federal, state and local governments close non-essential businesses and allow essential ones to remain open. Friday (March 20) closed a week that should have clarified the term, but instead, it was muddied.
Indeed, on Friday, the issue ranged from serious to slightly ridiculous. On the serious side, the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA) – which made statements every day last week without getting any clarification from the Trump administration about "essential" and "non-essential" – asked for “essential” status for warehouse workers.
"The health and safety of workers, shoppers and the public is the No. 1 priority for retailers right now. To that end, companies are working around the clock to ensure stores are stocked with the items that families need most during this crisis. Absolutely essential to that goal is the functional operation of distribution centers around the country," said RILA President Brian Dodge. "We fully support state and local leaders adhering to health officials' guidance and doing what is necessary to keep communities safe. As we all do our part to manage the impact of COVID-19, ensuring our supply chains are as functional as they can be is crucial, and we ask that policymakers make clear that distribution centers fall into that essential category."
In addition to directing goods to store shelves, the organization says, distribution centers are vital to those now relying on eCommerce or contactless forms of shopping to receive the items they need.
AT&T has closed about 40 percent of its stores nationwide. However, it was on the essential beat for its remaining stores. The company sent a notice to its California retailers on how to handle potential questions for the stores that remained open. Describing it as “best practice only,” the guidance sent on Thursday (March 19) “is to be used in the event that any officials, individuals or groups inquire about why the AT&T store is open,” according to reports.
“Our customers and first responders find the service we provide in our retail locations invaluable, especially at moments like this,” a company spokesman said in an email to The Verge. “Because of the evolving circumstances and guidelines for social distancing, we are balancing the need to serve the public in our retail stores with the health and safety of our customers and our employees.”
AT&T says it was told by the Department of Homeland Security that its retail stores provide “essential services that are critical to the public’s ability to communicate during the current emergency.” If a store is “visited by local government officials or police and they are asking why we’re open during the shelter in place order,” the letter instructs workers to “explain that AT&T is an essential business providing essential services and show them the printed copy of the attached letter. If they have further questions, please engage your management team.”
And on the more absurd side, GameStop, which was struggling financially before the crisis, declared itself an essential service on Friday (March 20), sending a memo to all stores explaining that the self-imposed designation should be shared with law enforcement.
“We have received reports of local authorities visiting stores in an attempt to enforce closure despite our classification,” reads a portion of that memo. “Store managers are approved to provide the document linked below to law enforcement as needed.”
GameStop says that it deems itself an essential retailer due to the fact that its offerings “enable and enhance our customers’ experience in working from home.” Enforcers, it says, are told to contact GameStop corporate for more information.