'Windows, merchandise can be replaced': Retailers in US, battered by COVID-19, now confront George Floyd killing protests, but empathise
Even as major chains boarded up stores and halted operations, they largely sought to convey empathy for protesters following the death of George Floyd while in police custody, and did not condemn the damage to their businesses.
People smashed the front doors of a Walmart in Peoria, Illinois. They ransacked an Apple store in Philadelphia and broke the windows at Nordstrom’s flagship in Seattle, its hometown, while throwing merchandise into the crowds outside.
The outbreak of protests and riots during the weekend roiled retailers of all stripes, adding new stress to an industry that has already been upended by the coronavirus pandemic. But even as major chains boarded up stores and halted operations, they largely sought to convey empathy for protesters following the death of a black man, George Floyd, while in police custody, and did not condemn the damage to their businesses. Many large retailers would not discuss the extent of the damage or how many stores they had to close because of the unrest.
“The events of this weekend are one more painful reminder that injustice remains in our world,” Nordstrom said on its website Monday. “We can fix the damage to our stores. Windows and merchandise can be replaced. We continue to believe as strongly as ever that tremendous change is needed to address the issues facing Black people in our country today.”
Walmart’s chief executive, Doug McMillon, said in a memo to employees: “We must remain vigilant in standing together against racism and discrimination. Doing so is not only at the heart of the values of our company, it’s at the core of the most basic principles of human rights, dignity and justice.”
Target, which is based in Minneapolis, where Floyd was killed, said over the weekend that about 200 stores would close or have shorter hours as a result of protests and looting. On Monday, the chain said that it was no longer sharing the number of affected stores “as the situation remains incredibly dynamic,” and emphasized its commitment to rebuilding and reopening damaged locations while supporting the Minneapolis and St. Paul communities.
CVS said that more than 250 locations across 21 states faced varying levels of damage from protest activity and that 60 stores remained closed while repairs were made. Adidas, which also sells the Reebok brand, said that after some stores were damaged during protests, it decided to close all its retail stores in the United States “until further notice.” Nike and Apple also closed some stores.
Companies across the business spectrum issued public statements of support for the protesters. Netflix wrote that “to be silent is to be complicit. Black lives matter.” Amazon said starkly that “the brutal and inequitable treatment of Black people in our country must stop.” WarnerMedia brands, including HBO, changed their Twitter descriptions to “#BlackLivesMatter.” And the influential trade group of corporate America, the Business Roundtable, said its members “share the anger and pain felt by so many Americans at the recent killings of unarmed black men and women.”
Denise Moore, a member of the City Council in Peoria, Illinois, said there seemed to be no obvious pattern for which stores were targeted and damaged. A laundromat, a shoe store that sold largely orthopedic shoes and a Walmart — all had their windows smashed.
Moore, who is the first African American woman elected to the Peoria City Council and represents a district with a large minority population, said she found the professions of empathy from large retailers like Walmart to ring hollow.
“It would be better for Walmart to respect their workers and pay them a livable wage,” Moore said Monday. “They take so much from this community.”
A Walmart spokesman said total compensation and benefits for full- and part-time store employees averaged to more than $18 an hour.
The Walmart in Peoria was one of several dozen that were damaged over the weekend. Social media and local news reports showed images of looting at dozens of Walmart stores from California to Massachusetts, and many locations had to close temporarily because of the unrest.
In a statement, the Walmart spokesman said the company was “monitoring this situation closely as it develops and will continue closing stores in select markets as a safety precaution for our customers and associates.”
The retailer said it would continue to pay workers while the stores remained closed.
Target and Gap, which also owns Old Navy, Athleta, Intermix and Banana Republic, also said that they would pay employees for scheduled shifts at closed stores and potentially redeploy workers to other locations.
Still, the damage comes just as retailers, especially those that sell clothing and other nonessential items, were beginning to open up after they were forced to shutter in March to curb the spread of the coronavirus . Many luxury retailers had already boarded up their stores in March as the pandemic took hold. And retailers like Nordstrom had their sales plummet 40 percent in the first quarter.
“We’re all crossing our fingers that this period will be a short one,” said Matthew W. Lazenby, chief executive of Whitman Family Development, which manages the high-end Bal Harbour Shops outside Miami.
“This pandemic has hit retail hard and of course, just as a lot of these stores are starting to try to bounce back, the civil unrest that spread this weekend has forced a lot of stores to close,” Lazenby said. “People are already nervous and already have some trepidation around the public health risk so this on top of that doesn’t make it any better.”
Even though the shopping center is miles from the site of protests in downtown Miami and in Fort Lauderdale, a handful of retailers, including Tiffany, Moncler, Saks Fifth Avenue and Intermix, which is owned by Gap, erected barricades in front of their stores Sunday, Lazenby said. The stores took the step as Miami-Dade County announced a curfew from 9 pm to 6 am Sunday, he said, adding that the center had just reopened May 18.
Even for retailers that were deemed essential and allowed to remain open during the pandemic, the looting has created another challenge that will mostly be borne by the companies’ already beleaguered work force.
Retailers like Walmart have been paying bonuses to their employees who have faced the daily risk of contracting the virus at work. But now those workers are confronting an additional threat of mayhem in their stores. Employees who were set to return to work at other retailers after being furloughed are being delayed as stores close to repair damage from the looting.
“When these stores have to close, that is putting more low-income people out of work and that is not any good,” said Moore.
The National Retail Federation, an industry trade group, sought to address the looting but blamed it on “the actions of a few,” in a Monday statement that largely focused on the reality of racial injustice in the country and peaceful protests.
“Defacing, looting and plundering businesses, whether viewed as a direct outgrowth of fury or an opportunistic act of vandalism and theft, impedes progress and healing,” said Matthew Shay, the group’s president. “We urge people to stop looting and destruction under the name of protest.”
But some retailers were not willing to denounce the looting given the societal issues that unleashed it.
Marc Jacobs, the designer who had at least one of his stores damaged during the protests, declared on Instagram, “NEVER let them convince you that broken glass or property is violence.” Racism, white supremacy and poverty were violence, he wrote. He emphasized that while “property can be replaced, human lives CANNOT."
Sapna Maheshwari and Michael Corkery c.2020 The New York Times Company
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