Chris Gibbs, the owner of retailer Union Los Angeles, has had bad months before. Hell, he’s had bad years, he says. But Gibbs had never thought about sending out a message like the one he posted to his shop’s Instagram Tuesday night. “I am saying all this as a plea to ask anyone that is able, to please continue to support your small businesses during these tough times,” he wrote. And clarified over the phone Wednesday evening: “Union is not too big to fail,” he said. “And neither are most of your local dealers.”
The spread of coronavirus has made this sobering reality unavoidable for many of our favorite businesses, both in and out of the fashion industry. Gibbs says that the second he closes his store—a near-necessity for all retailers in these times—he starts to lose money. Other brands have echoed Gibbs’s plea. That same Tuesday night, Noah founder Brendon Babenzien posted an open letter: “We’re asking people to buy something,” he wrote.
There seems to be a simple solution given that stores are closed and we’ve been encouraged to stay home: people in quarantine or self-isolating are perfectly situated to shop online. Data from analytics firm Quantum Metric show that online clothing shopping revenue is already up 43% at U.S.-based online retailers since the first week of January, and that the average order value has gone up 26% in that time span. Gibbs also says he’s already seen the pendulum swing strongly in favour of online shopping.
Shopping online in the midst of a pandemic is fraught with questions, though. Is it safe for us to be receiving packages and clothes? What about secondhand items from places like Grailed, StockX, or Goat? Is shopping online putting a dangerous chain into motion that increases the exposure and spread of COVID-19 and endangers the people responsible for packaging, shipping, and delivering those items? Are we putting undue pressure on an already-strained delivery system, slowing down the shipment of essential products because we want a new item for a work-from-home fit? How do you balance those quandaries with the evident truth that without online shopping some of our favourite brands and businesses might not be around on the other side of this? And what is the best way to support those brands that do need help?
I spoke to small business owners, health experts, epidemiologists, and ethicists to work through those thorny questions, and to figure out the best, and hopefully most ethical, ways to shop online now.
Should I be shopping online at all right now?
Strictly examining this question from a personal safety perspective, people aren’t putting themselves in danger by ordering clothes and accepting packages. “It's fair to say that from the time that the person that's packaged whatever it is that you ordered, and it gets in transit and then it gets through your door, it's very unlikely that the virus stayed alive through that process,” says Dr. Gabriela Andujar Vazquez, an infectious disease physician at Tufts Medical Center. Still, the extra-careful might consider washing their hands after handling the package, or even sanitising it before tearing it open. (Even if you’re not receiving jawnz: wash your hands!)
The same holds true for buying clothes from secondary markets. “Clean them like you would clean any clothes, and that will take care of anything that would be on secondhand items,” says Vazquez.
Just because shopping online is safe doesn’t mean we should do so without contemplating the potential consequences for everyone involved, though. Tara Smith, a professor of epidemiology at the college of public health at Kent State University, advises people to carefully consider anything they’re buying online. “I don't think anything is without risk here,” she said in an email. “I do think we need to prioritize. I'm limiting my purchases to things I need to work or live… Do you need that bathing suit yet? I think taking a moment to consider the workers and the issues we're all dealing with right now is something that should be on people's minds.”
Zoe Johnson King, a professor of ethics at New York University's philosophy department, argues that it’s not as simple as just fully putting the brakes on all online shopping. While there are inherent dangers, “There also is a benefit to those very same people working in delivery and distribution, namely that they get to keep working and delivering because there's stuff to be delivered and stuff to be distributed,” she says. If you do buy that swimsuit, somebody's going to have to pack it—and they're going to collect their paycheck that much longer.
If I am ordering online, where should I order from?
Now is when shoppers need to be extra thoughtful about the sort of businesses they are supporting. Amazon is often the most convenient option, but the retailer is in no danger of going out of business. That isn’t true for many of the brands and retailers people are most passionate about. “A lot of the businesses that define our culture right now might not be here in a couple of months,” Babenzien wrote in an email. “I’m hopeful that we will weather this storm but it's not guaranteed. I have been speaking with other designers and business owners and the general vibe is that everyone feels a bit nervous that they may not make it through.”
Supporting small businesses is about more than just giving money to the brands and shops we’ve grown to love—it’s about helping out the people who make them possible. Gibbs emphasizes that he employs a staff of 12 people who depend on Union for their livelihoods. He wants to keep paying them through this crisis for as long as possible, but without sales, he won’t be able to do that for an infinite amount of time.
Ethics professor Johnson King recommends thinking through where you spend your money in terms of utility: “Where can my money make the biggest difference?” That might include looking at places that will be hurting if you’re not spending there, that might have to close shop—putting multiple people out of work—without you. “Those considerations often favor injecting money in local businesses,” she says.
The best way to support these businesses is to simply shop. Picking up a gift card is nice, too, but Babenzien says, “I can tell you from our place in all of this, we are not overburdened with online orders.” Also, understand that gift cards aren’t a blanket solution. Employees work on commission and store-employed personal shoppers may not benefit from a gift card purchase.
Ultimately, the lesson we’re learning about shopping in the era of coronavirus—be incredibly mindful and considerate of what you’re buying and where you’re buying it from—seems to be the same thing we’ve been circling in broader discussions about shopping and fashion in the last few years. Right now, though, the focus is here: if you can, shop. “Not everybody can go out and buy a Visvim jacket because they want to support their local mom and pop shop,” says Gibbs. “But some people can, and for the people who can, please consider that we're open.”