Although it was set to close its retail stores on Friday evening because of the coronavirus pandemic, Nebraska Furniture Mart’s sprawling distribution center in Kansas City, Kansas, will remain open for business.
The 650,000-square-foot warehouse fulfills online and telephone orders and employs approximately 400 people who work in three shifts, with 100 to 150 working at any given time.
On Tuesday, Nebraska Furniture Mart, the largest retailer in the Kansas City area, announced it would close its four retail stores, which are located in Kansas City, Kansas; Omaha; Des Moines; and Dallas/Fort Worth beginning Friday, March 27, at 7 p.m.
The company previously said that it provided “essential” goods, exempting it from the stay-at-home orders issued by local governments permitting certain businesses to remain open. But concern that its retail stores — vast showrooms that typically draw hundreds or more customers per day who use, touch and try out their merchandise — could become vectors for COVID-19 prompted the company to reverse course.
But the Kansas City, Kansas, distribution center, which is attached to the 550,000-square-foot showroom, will stay open, the company says, because it is large enough to ensure the social distancing needed to minimize the risk of COVID-19 transmission.
“I would say in a 650,000-square-foot distribution center, if you did the math on that, they could basically have 3,000 square feet in between each other from a social distance standpoint,” Tony Boldt, president and chief operating officer of Nebraska Furniture Mart, told KCUR in an extended phone interview.
Boldt was eager to dispel rumors that the company decided to close its showrooms only because of the backlash it received on social media.
“It wasn’t social media, it wasn’t the government,” he said. “Nobody told us that we needed to close. We made that decision on our own and we did it based on the best information that we had as a business to serve the public.”
An anonymous Facebook page critical of Nebraska Furniture Mart’s decision to keep the showrooms open drew dozens of scathing comments earlier this week, questioning whether the company was risking employees’ and the public’s health.
That came after the chief medical officer of the Unified Government of Wyandotte County/Kansas City, Kansas, issued a public health order on Saturday requiring residents to stay at home.
The order included exceptions for businesses that supply products for people to work at home; businesses that supply other businesses with the support or supplies they need to operate; and businesses that ship or deliver goods directly to residences.
Health Department spokeswoman Janell Friesen said the Unified Government was counting on businesses to “use their discretion to determine if the goods or services they offer truly serve the health, safety and basic needs of our community.” Cooperation from businesses, she said, “is crucial to reducing the spread of COVID-19 in our community.”
Boldt insisted Nebraska Furniture Mart was “actively encouraged” by public health officials to stay open.
“We’ve also been in communication for weeks with the local health departments, making sure we’re doing all of the right things, including asking them at any time should we close,” he said. “And we’ve always been told that we should not.”
Friesen, however, said she’d asked people in the Unified Government’s administrative and legal departments whether anyone had given such encouragement, “and I didn’t get any indication of anyone actively and specifically encouraging Nebraska Furniture Mart to remain open.”
Instead, she said, Unified Government offiicals had “just some hypothetical conversations about businesses that can provide supplies, like computers, for instance, to allow people to work from home or appliances to operate or maintain a residence. But not any specific encouragement for a business like that.”
Boldt said the decision to close the showrooms came after an initial surge of demand – he said Nebraska Furniture Mart’s call center received 50,000 customer calls last week – had tapered off. The 275 call center employees are now working from home, he said.
But some employees are unhappy about the decision to keep the company’s large distribution centers, including the one in Kansas City, Kansas, open. The centers’ workers often share common equipment and computers, and while they say hand sanitizer is available, they also complain that there’s no widespread disinfection of shared items.
Over the last two weeks, dozens of U.S. retailers have opted to shut down or curtail their hours. Among them: Best Buy, Kohl’s, IKEA, JCPenney, Macy’s, Gap, Crate & Barrel and TJMaxx. Many, however, are keeping their distribution warehouses open.
“We will work with government and health officials to assess when we will reopen our stores and safely bring our colleagues back to work,’ Macy’s CEO Jeff Gennette said in a statement. “During this closure, we will continue to serve our customers through our e-commerce sites.”
The question of what constitutes an “essential” business allowed to remain open has assumed additional resonance as the coronavirus spreads exponentially and the number of deaths rapidly climbs. In Kansas City, for example, Guitar Center has closed its retail stores but kept its huge distribution warehouse open.
Boldt said that ensuring the safety of Nebraska Furniture Mart’s employees and customers was one of the company’s top priorities.
“We just thought we could still continue to serve people with needs through our online channel or through our contact center,” he said. “If you want to do drive-through or do contact with pickup, we can load it in your car without anybody touching anything and we would be as safe as possible. Or we could actually deliver it via driveway delivery to people’s curbside.”
Asked about employees who are choosing to stay home, Boldt said they can use their paid-time off. Employees with no paid-time off will not get paid.
“We know that demand is going to reduce significantly,” Boldt said. “As we continue to release staff that are no longer necessary until our business comes back, we have pretty much documented a plan that will pay them at least 30 days’ full pay. And I will also say for the people that are working now, we’ve already instituted that they get paid time-and-a-half for every hour worked.”
Dan Margolies is a senior reporter and editor at KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies.