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Are Sporting Goods Essential in a Pandemic?

Andrea Felsted

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- You really can’t blame Mike Ashley for trying.

The billionaire founder of Frasers Group Plc tried to keep his sporting goods stores open, arguing that they provided essential supplies of fitness equipment to self-isolating Britons. The retailer has since made a U-turn, closing its Sports Direct and Evans Cycles stores on Tuesday as the U.K.’s nationwide lockdown took effect.

Ashley may be everyone’s favorite pantomime villain — and his brash attempt to keep stores open prompted a backlash from politicians —  but as usual, the entrepreneur isn’t totally off point. People around the world are asking themselves exactly what they may need to stay healthy and sane as they hunker down at home to ride out the coronavirus crisis.

There seems to be some logic missing in the categories that the British government has deemed essential and non-essential. Some are obvious: supermarkets and pharmacies, for example, should stay open. Clothing shops are clearly far less necessary. Many, including Next Plc, Arcadia Group Ltd.’s Topshop and Primark, the budget fashion chain owned by Associated Foods Plc, had already closed their doors.

But other categories are more ambiguous. Why are bicycle shops deemed more essential than electronics and home appliance retailers? Dixons Carphone Plc was among the chains lobbying to be given essential status. The group has now shuttered stores. (Frasers closed Evans Cycles anyway while seeking more clarity from the government.)

The government argues that bicycle shops are crucial to help workers get around while avoiding public transport. But surely with many Britons now forced to work from home, it’s also imperative for people to be able to buy computer and phone gear they didn’t know they really needed until now. If they’re out buying food, shouldn’t they be able to buy a cable or a printer too? And what if the washing machine breaks? Many large electronics and appliance stores are conveniently located in the same retail parks as supermarkets.

True, people can order via the internet, and many sales will indeed migrate to this channel. But there is a danger that with so many online orders for essential items, delivery capacity for anything else won’t be able to keep up.

And filling one’s virtual supermarket shopping cart with things like an extension cord or two, in order to collect it from their local store, risks putting more pressure on staff who are busy filling shelves with staple items and keeping up with an influx of panic-buyers.

Kingfisher Plc, which owns B&Q in the U.K. and Castorama in France, has closed its U.K. DIY estate while it looks to find the best ways to still provide essential items. Its Screwfix business, which serves tradesmen, has moved to “click and collect” only. That may be a model worth trying to alleviate some of the issues created by the lockdown, as well as opening only a limited number of stores as Halfords Plc is set to do.  This could ensure much needed goods are available while discouraging shopping sprees.

The debate about the right approach to take comes as retailers are facing a catastrophic loss of trade. Trying to do everything to salvage some sales is only logical. Especially as the shutdown could not have come at a worst time with quarterly rent payments due tomorrow.

Of course retailers that do stay open must be conscious of protecting not only customers, by respecting social distancing best practices, but also their own staff, who need gloves and masks for example. At some point the virus will abate, and chains will want to emerge with their reputation in tact.

But it’s a difficult balance to strike. And it is one that chains in the U.S. are facing as well as the virus case count increases there, although many companies, including Nike Inc., Apple Inc. and L Brands Inc.’s  Bath & Bodyworks, have already closed their stores.

It’s important the government help British chains find the equilibrium they need to weather this crisis.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Andrea Felsted is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the consumer and retail industries. She previously worked at the Financial Times.

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