By Suzanne Kapner and Sarah Nassauer 

U.S. clothing and mall retailers from Abercrombie & Fitch Co. to Nike Inc. are closing thousands of stores across the country for two weeks, unprecedented moves to stem the spread of the new coronavirus.

On Sunday, the companies said they would temporarily shut their U.S. shops but continue paying their store workers and taking online orders. The list included sportswear makers like Lululemon Athletica Inc. and Under Armour Inc., as well as the owners of popular chains like Urban Outfitters, Hollister and Lush Cosmetics.

Grocers and other chains that sell foods, medicines and household essentials have promised to stay open and restock as people race to fill pantries and refrigerators. Walmart Inc. and grocers Kroger Co. and Publix said they will limit overnight hours for cleanings and restocking shelves.

"We're all committed to making sure we're keeping our stores open to serve the American consumer who's rapidly stocking up on household essentials," Target Inc. Chief Executive Brian Cornell said at a White House news conference Friday. The company is "making sure we run safe stores and creating an environment that is safe for our team members."

Normal life ground toward a halt under pressure from the coronavirus pandemic on Sunday, as tighter restrictions by governments put further constraints on travel, shopping and even religious services. The virus has infected more than 156,000 people and killed more than 5,800 since emerging late last year in China, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

On Saturday, Apple Inc. said all of its stores outside Greater China would be closed until March 27 in light of the worsening spread of the virus. Apple stores in China were open Saturday, a sign of how the threat of the epidemic has shifted. Apple said a retail employee at its Santa Monica, Calif., store tested positive for the virus.

Walmart said its 4,700 U.S. stores would stay open but close overnight to help the company clean and disinfect surfaces. Previously, about 2,200 of its U.S. stores were open 24 hours. The company last week said a worker in a Kentucky store tested positive.

Products are moving through the supply chain and making their way to stores, Walmart said this weekend; store managers, however, may limit sales quantities on items in unusually high demand. Walmart said its hourly employees will continue to work their day and evening shifts.

Target, which has about 1,800 stores, has also placed quantity limits on some items and paused its next-day delivery and express-shipping services, which were overwhelmed by demand. The company has shifted staff to help fulfill online orders that customers pick up at stores or in store parking lots, a spokesman said.

Target and other large retailers have invested heavily in recent years to offer shoppers more ways to buy online for delivery or store pickup. The capacity of those services are now being tested as shoppers flock to stores and websites to buy household goods and as more organizations ask workers to stay home.

U.S. grocers aren't keeping up with customers who are emptying their shelves amid angst over the new coronavirus. Even Amazon.com Inc.'s Prime Now service warned customers that it had limited availability and delivery options for some items because of increased demand.

At the same time, there is less urgency to buy clothing or nonessential items. "Depending on how long this lasts, the economic impact could be enormous," said Allen Questrom, former chief executive of J.C. Penney Co., Neiman Marcus Group Ltd. and other retailers.

Analysts said most chains could endure a two-week shutdown but prolonged closures or drop in store visits would strain mall-based stores and department stores. Some cautioned that e-commerce sales are unlikely to fill the void, since many retailers get 75% of their revenue from their stores.

"We see mall traffic down over 50%-75% over the coming weeks and don't anticipate much transfer to online purchases as consumers are currently too worried about finding toilet paper in the supermarket," analysts at Jefferies wrote in a research note, which warned that malls were likely to become ghost towns.

Urban Outfitters Inc., which has 625 locations including the Anthropologie and Free People brands, said it would close stores for two weeks. "Store associates will be paid during this shutdown and we'll continue to ship online orders," the company's chief digital officer, David Hayne, said in a tweet. "Big step but a necessary one."

Abercrombie & Fitch Co. said Sunday it will close all of its stores in North America and the European, Middle East and Africa regions. The stores will remain closed until March 28. Stores in the Asia-Pacific region are open. All Abercrombie & Fitch store associates will continue to be paid.

Abercrombie CEO Fran Horowitz said the company expects to continue filling e-commerce orders. It also withdrew its guidance for the current quarter and the full fiscal year but said it expects "material adverse impacts" from the virus. The company operates more than 880 stores world-wide under its Abercrombie and Hollister brands.

Nike Inc. said it was closing stores in the U.S., Canada, Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand to protect its employees and consumers. The stores will close from March 16 to March 27, but the sportswear maker will accept online orders. Nike-owned stores in South Korea, Japan, most of China and other countries are open.

Outdoor-gear retailer Patagonia on Saturday said it would shut its stores, offices and operations for at least two weeks and will reassess that March 27. Employees will receive their regular pay, the company said.

Small startups that sell mainly online but have retail locations are also shutting their physical stores, including apparel-rental business Rent the Runway and cosmetics seller Glossier.

Craig Johnson, president of consulting firm Customer Growth Partners, said that if the virus is resolved by April, he expects retail sales to grow 4.1% this year. But if the virus lingers into June, that forecast could be cut in half.

Khadeeja Safdar contributed to this article.

Write to Suzanne Kapner at Suzanne.Kapner@wsj.com and Sarah Nassauer at sarah.nassauer@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

March 15, 2020 17:39 ET (21:39 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
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