The Coronavirus Bailout: What About Stores and Clothing?

Credit…Al Bello/Getty Images

Over the past five days, executives from the largest American clothing brands and department stores have been engaged in urgent late-night phone calls and marathon video conferences in which they game out scenarios for their future in a world with a coronavirus pandemic.

In the end, they have decided to request a stimulus package from the United States government that would defray the worst of the effects for both big and small businesses alike, framing it as a “bridge,” not a “bailout.”

The discussion of coming economic carnage as municipal and federal shutdowns have changed lives and businesses has primarily focused on the airlines and the cruise ships, on restaurants and hotels.

But the larger American retail industry and its associated industries represent 52 million jobs — one in four of all workers — and almost $ 4 trillion worth of gross domestic product, according to data from the National Retail Federation.

“There will be tens of millions of job losses in the industry,” said Sonia Syngal, the chief executive of Gap Inc., which includes Old Navy, Banana Republic and Athleta. “People don’t understand how deeply fashion — which is often seen as nonessential — is connected to the U.S. economy.” Gap Inc. has 80,000 employees nationwide working in stores alone.

Without immediate relief, said Tory Burch, the founder and co-chief executive of an eponymous brand that employs 4,000 people in the United States, “our industry will fail.”

“I don’t understand why no one is talking about this,” said Stephen Smith, the chief executive of L.L. Bean, which has 5,000 full-time employees in the United States.

Though many clothing brands report they have publicly committed to paying all employees and continuing their medical benefits for the initial two-week period for which most stores are expected to be closed, that time frame ends in early April. No one realistically expects the situation to have changed by then.

Mr. Smith said L.L. Bean had “modeled out countless different scenarios” until the company ultimately settled on “bad, worse and worst.”

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John Idol, chief executive of Capri Holdings, which owns Michael Kors, Jimmy Choo and Versace and has 9,000 employees in the United States, said that, of the scenarios his company had examined, a realistic, not alarmist industry assessment still saw “north of 10 million people who will be unemployed.”

“Taking China as a model, it’s likely nothing will reopen until between 30 to 60 days from now,” Mr. Idol said. “It will be approximately a year before business gets somewhat back to normal — and it won’t be the normal we are used to; it will be a new normal. Many companies won’t make it through.”

The result will be a domino effect. It begins with just the stores that are closed and their employees, which then hurts the brands whose clothes they sell — in fact, many are already hurting from canceled wholesale orders. Then come the factories that produce the clothes for those brands, and the mills that spin the fabric, and even the farmers that produce the raw materials. Spillover includes the ads that will be pulled from glossy magazines, the landlords without tenants, logistics companies and transporters who will lose their clients.

“It will come to a point where there will be pressure on cash flow even for a company of our size, with what I thought was a fortress balance sheet,” said Emanuel Chirico, the chief executive of PVH, which owns Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, among other brands, and employs approximately 20,000 people in the United States.

“The formula has always been you create inventory, borrow against the inventory and then sell the inventory,” he said. But when you can’t sell the inventory because no shops are open and no one is buying, the whole chain falls apart. Already, Mr. Chirico said, his stores had accepted their clothing for spring — which is now sitting in darkened rooms. Online, some already have sale prices on new merchandise. (About two-thirds of L.L. Beans sales are online, directly to consumers; Mr. Smith said business was “holding on,” but was still “down 40 percent.”) Either way, the full value of the products will never be recouped.

Many department stores have simply stopped accepting spring orders, sending them directly back to designers without payment, though the designer has already paid the production costs. Small companies are having to consider the possibility of bankruptcy.

“I don’t think anyone would step in if there was an orderly long-term change as people migrate from stores and do more online shopping,” said Jay Sole, a retail analyst at the investment bank UBS. “But if we’re going to a very fast disorderly change in the retail landscape, I think some of these retailers could be deemed too big to fail.”

It began on Wednesday, when the Council of Fashion Designers of America contacted Ms. Burch and asked her to lead the initiative. The American Apparel and Footwear Association was already on board. Ms. Burch in turn contacted over 20 executives to create a working group, including executives from Ralph Lauren, Nordstrom, Saks and Tom Ford International. The next day, the National Retail Federation, an advocacy group for more than a century, came on board. Mr. Smith said he had “never seen anything like” the coordination taking place across the industry. During multiple group chats, three targets were agreed upon.

First, they would ask for financing loans for real estate companies, so brands and department stores could have their rent forgiven until they could reopen. Second, they would ask for grants that cover at least 80 percent of employee salaries if they were kept on payroll. And finally, they would request tariff and duty relief for the next 12 months.

“Retail after the tariffs was already struggling,” said Deborah Weinswig, founder of Coresight Research, an advisory and research firm that specializes in retail and technology. “You’ve taken a weakened industry and you’re weakening it even further. I’m apolitical but overall, we haven’t seen the support we’ve needed for U.S. retail from the U.S. government.”

“I’m worried that we come out of this with fewer retailers, and those that survive don’t always have the consumer’s best interests at heart,” she said.

Though most of these forms of relief would apply to larger businesses with fixed costs of stores as well as overseas production, they should also affect smaller businesses — the tiny, designer-led names in the garment district — who would benefit from credit loans to continue paying employees, as well as relief on import taxes.

On Friday, Ms. Burch spoke to Steven Mnuchin, the secretary of the Treasury, and Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader and a Republican from California. On Saturday, Anna Wintour, the artistic director of Condé Nast and a leading advocate for the industry, contacted Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Chuck Schumer, both Democrats of New York, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California.

“These industries support millions of workers across the country and in New York,” said Ms. Gillibrand in an email. “This economic package must put these workers first, providing them with paid sick and family leave, expanded unemployment insurance and strong protections. Doing so will strengthen workers in every state across the country.”

In a letter sent to President Trump over the weekend, 90 different trade and retail organizations laid out the potential immediate losses and their belief that “the biggest single issue facing the industry right now is liquidity.” It also underscored their concern about being overlooked.

“The economic stimulus packages that are being considered must address the concerns of all different kinds and sizes of retail business, including their suppliers,” they wrote. “While some retail businesses may be considered ‘essential’ and may be able to remain open, many will not.”

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