In This Episode
For a country that loves to shop, COVID-19 has forced Americans to focus their spending sprees on toilet paper and masks. What’s happened to that favorite American pastime — shopping — in the middle of a pandemic? Is anyone buying? Are warehouses simply filled with stuff… and will it go on sale? This week, Alex talks to Clare Vivier, the designer and owner of the fashion brand Clare V. Clare discusses how she’s handled factory closures and shuttered warehouses. Then Alex talks to Kasi, a clerk at a Hobby Lobby in Missouri, whose doors opened to the public last week. She shares her experience going back to work to sell craft supplies, and whether crochet needles count as essential materials in a pandemic.
Alex Wagner: Hi. Welcome to Six Feet Apart. I’m Alex Wagner. There are a few things we know for certain in this crisis, but one thing we know beyond a shadow of a doubt, it is a really good time to be selling toilet paper. And masks and gloves, and hand sanitizer. But what about literally everything else that you can buy? Up until COVID-19 became a global pandemic, Americans especially, were known as lusty consumers, buying so much so often that the American consumer became the very heart of the national economy. 70% of the U.S. economy is consumer spending. And that ain’t all hand sanitizer, folks. So what’s happened to all that shopping as people have stayed home and gotten increasingly wary about spending money? What’s happened to the people making all that stuff that we used to buy so much of? Is it all just sitting in warehouses ready to go on sale? What do you do with thousands and thousands of handbags and Wiffle balls and eyeshadow and crochet needles anyway? And now that stores are beginning to open up to the public, what’s going on with the people selling the stuff that we used to buy so much of? Are they busy, are they scared? That’s what we’re going to talk about today: shopping. First, we’re going to talk to Claire Vivier, the designer and owner of Claire V., a boutique fashion brand known for its bags and accessories. And then we’ll speak to Kasi, a store clerk at the craft supply store Hobby Lobby. Hobby Lobby is a national chain that you may remember from the very high-profile 2012 lawsuit, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, a suit that made its way all the way to the Supreme Court when the company sued the Obama administration for its mandated contraception coverage under the Affordable Care Act. But before we get to all that, here’s Claire Vivier.
Alex Wagner: Claire, can you give us a sense of your business pre-pandemic?
Claire Vivier: Yes, we are accessories and clothing brand based in Los Angeles. We are made in Los Angeles. About 90% of our production is produced here in Los Angeles. We have eight of our own stores. It’s five stores in California and two stores in New York City and one in Chicago. We are sold in about 150 stores around the world and, I’ve had the company for 11 years. I started it right here out of my house, where I am now again, working.
Alex Wagner: Yeah, the cycle of retail. In terms of the volume of sales, like how many bags, for example, were being sold every month.
Claire Vivier: We were selling about a 100,000 pieces a year, and that includes apparel and small items as well. Yeah.
Alex Wagner: Tell me a little bit about how you first, how and when you first realized that COVID-19 was going to affect your business?
Claire Vivier: Gosh, it was interesting because I had a trip planned for a long time with an organization that I do a lot of work with called Every Mother Counts. So this most recent trip was to India to see their programs with an organization called [Mestique?] in India, which helps paralegals advocate for women’s rights. Simultaneously, I had two people from my company in Milan at the leather show that happens twice a year in Milan called Lineapelle. And then we had market right after that in Paris. So I had my design director at Lineapelle, and then in Paris. And I started to hear, I was in India at the time, and I started to hear from my president of my company, that there was a little bit of apprehension from others in the company about these two employees who had just been in Milan and whether or not they were, they were going to be contagious.
Alex Wagner: What was your communication with your employees who were in Europe? Did they, were they worried when they were there? Was anybody talking about it? I mean, one of them was in Italy. So I would assume there was some amount of awareness on the ground.
Claire Vivier: Yeah, they were both in Italy together. And then one of them went on to Paris and the one that stayed, Greta, who stayed in Paris and was really hearing way more about it because it had just really, really started to erupt in Milan. And I think they got out of there right at the right time. I started to hear about it because there were a few employees back at the Home Office, back at our headquarters that were a little nervous to have these two employees come back in from Milan and Paris. And I was in India. So I felt very far away and very worried to be so far and not there as a leader of my company, you know, making people feel more at ease and just dealing with a situation that could be arising. So my president Molly was very reassuring that, no, I did not need to come home early. And we kept in touch every single day. And I ended up staying and did the Jaipur part of my trip and arrived home on March 6th.
Alex Wagner: So you are overseas, which is a fairly dramatic sort of way to watch this thing unfold, right, especially from India. And you’re thinking about this in terms of the human toll, right? Like, how am I going to keep my employees safe? What do they need for me as a leader? Did you start, at what point did you start to think about it in terms of production and how it might affect the things that you sell?
Claire Vivier: Well, it was pretty early on in terms of materials, because we know that most of our materials are coming from Italy, most leather that we order comes from Italy. So I think we didn’t realize that our factories were going to close until really the week after that, the week of the 16th, our local factories. We started to get kind of, the inkling that things were going to be shutting down and we started to, that week of the 9th every day was like something more was happening, that we were thinking this is going to happen, we’re going to have to close our stores. We’re going to have to close our headquarters. On, later that week, so probably like the 13th, we closed one of our stores because we thought that the lockdown was going to happen the next week on the 16th. And we had one of our employees at our Newport Beach store had a fever and we just couldn’t risk anything. So we closed that store early. We closed that the March 13th just for the safety of the employees. And then we closed all of our stores on March 16th. The thing that was really, really difficult for me was two weeks later, we furloughed all of our retail employees, and that was when it really hit me that I was perhaps part of causing pain to these people that I love and that came to work for a company that I built myself and that they had, you know, given themselves to help me build this company. And I, that was extremely painful to me. And that’s when it really hit home and I couldn’t, I couldn’t be optimistic about it anymore.
Alex Wagner: We’re talking about this sort of looking at the rearview. I got, I want to kind of catch up to the present and get a sense of where things stand right now. You know, commerce continues. A lot of it’s online. How have you guys been managing sales if there are any? Can you tell me a little bit about what the market is like and how you’ve been navigating these waters?
Claire Vivier: We still had a ton of direct sales to go out of our warehouse, and I could not ask any employees to go in, so I went in with my husband and the two of us had to learn everything from printing labels to how we ship bags to picking and packing. So it was a real crash course on how the operations of our warehouse work.
Alex Wagner: The decision to go back in there and actually be in the warehouse with your mask and your husband seems like a fairly hardcore, like we’re going to do this by any means necessary.
Claire Vivier: Yes, that’s exactly what it was. And that’s, that’s what we did. I mean, there was no other choice for me. I knew that we had to keep some source of revenue in the company, otherwise we would be completely gutted. So our website was still running. Everyone could still run that from a distance. But somebody needed to ship the bags, the actual orders. We had hundreds and hundreds of orders that had to go out. So things got shipped a little bit later than usual. But we we eventually got everything out. We also put the website on sale because we were very nervous about the over-inventoried position. And at the same time, we had wholesale orders canceling on us, and we had eight stores that had just closed. So we had a lot of revenue to make up. And so we kind of panicked, which I think a lot of brands did. And I don’t know if it was panic or if it was just something really smart to do but we put the entire site on sale 25% off, which is something we never do.
Alex Wagner: Tell me how businesses, I mean, I think this is the big question when you think about retail, right, like there’s a certain consumer that’s going to be excited about the sale, a wealthier consumer, more middle class consumer, what have you. And then there’s a whole group of Americans who are out of jobs, who are seriously worried about their finances. How do you calibrate, you know, where your business is, where your price points are set, like who you’re designing for in a moment of uncertainty like this?
Claire Vivier: One of the things I really love about our company is that, and I think it’s part of our ethos, is that we are a joyful company. We’re very, I think that we produce a very happy product, without it being, without it being silly in any way. I think it’s, it’s just something that brings joy to people, and I think it brings joy to maybe, where largely women who are, is our client base. So I think it’s, there’s something about fashion that can be a purchase that brings joy to people, and I think this is a time when people are looking for something that kind of will uplift their spirits a little bit. So I think we might be riding on that a little bit, that we are, I don’t know, bringing comfort to people in a certain way and maybe letting them take their mind off what is happening in the world right now for a small moment in time.
Alex Wagner: Have you seen demand, I mean, how is demand, generally speaking, you had to close your stores, are they all still closed?
Claire Vivier: This last weekend, our California stores were able to open now. So we decided to hustle. Now, this puts, I think, every store in a weird position because, number one, you have to figure out if this is a good plan for you or, and you’ve probably emptied out your stores at this time because you, number one didn’t want looting and number two, didn’t, you needed that inventory for e-commerce. So we had our stores were pretty empty. We had like 48 hours to put inventory back in our stores and find employees to work.
Alex Wagner: So how are sales?
Claire Vivier: Well, I’m happy that we opened. They were not as great as they would have been like compared to last year. But we did some brisk sales for Mother’s Day. I’m happy we did.
Alex Wagner: It’s wonderful to hear that you have had such a positive experience in this sort of chancy reopening period. I guess I wonder, though, as you look ahead, where we have a very uncertain economic forecast. The virus is by no means under control in a national way that would, I think, give a lot of people more confidence in terms of going out, spending money or just going out, period. How do you, I mean, how do you look at the year 2020 from where we sit right now?
Claire Vivier: Yeah, that’s I mean, let’s be clear, I’m not, I’m not extremely delusional or anything. I know that the second shoe could drop at any moment, but we’re just taking things day by day. And right now it means that our stores can be open for curbside pickup. And for right now, that feels like a positive thing. But our overall revenue is projected to be down by 50%. We’ve redone our budget this year, like already three different times since the pandemic has struck, and we keep lowering our numbers, but at the same time, our website is performing really well and we’ll see, we’ll see what our stores do.
Alex Wagner: Claire, I want to ask you sort of a philosophical question in this moment. Do you think that American consumption will be changed by COVID-19?
Claire Vivier: I hope it’s changed by COVID-19, I hope that. We can think more about our purchases and buy things that are of quality over quantity. I believe that we will fall into the, in the former category, and I think that we are still something special and a quality that people will purchase. So I think we’re going to be OK. But of course, mass consumerism is a huge problem for the, for our country and for the environment and I hope that, that is something that comes out of this pandemic that would be something positive, for sure. But the thing that, I think that keeps me going really overall is that we are not only producing quality goods that bring people joy, but we’re also producing jobs and creating community. And that’s been the most satisfying element of building this company, is, and that was also why it was the most painful to lay people off, because I want my company to survive, not because we’re consumer goods getting out in the world. I do love our product. I am proud of it. But I think a creative company that employs a lot of people here locally in Los Angeles and in the cities where our stores are, is something to be really proud of. And I think people need jobs. And the fact that I’ve been able to provide hundreds of them to people is really the most the most satisfying element of all of this. So I’m, I know what you’re getting at with asking a question about consumerism, but I think, I think as humans, we like to buy things that make us feel good and I think Clair V. is that product that makes people feel good. And most of all, I’m just happy to have created this community, both of employees and of Claire V. Fans.
Alex Wagner: Well, we hope that they are all back fully employed sooner than later and that the procurement of joy continues in whatever form it may take. Thanks for your time Claire.
Claire Vivier: Thank you, Alex.
Alex Wagner: Before we hear from Kasi, here’s a quick word from our sponsors,
Alex Wagner, narrating: And now here’s Kasi, a store clerk at Hobby Lobby.
Alex Wagner: Kasi, let’s just start with where are you in this, in these United States?
Kasi: I am in St. Joseph, Missouri. It’s about an hour outside of Kansas City.
Alex Wagner: OK, and tell me a little bit about your work.
Kasi: Well I work for Hobby Lobby. It was my high school job and I went to college and grad school, and then my grandma got sick and I moved back to help take care of her. And it was just easy to fall back into something that I already knew and was there and was convenient. And there’s not a lot of opportunity here per se. So I just, I, it’s retail. It is what it is. I work, I do home décor. I make nice little decorations for people’s houses and try to sell them.
Alex Wagner: Right. So for people who aren’t familiar with Hobby Lobby, it’s a line of craft stores, right?
Kasi: Yes. Yeah. Crafts. Although I mean it’s really kind of from even the time when I worked there in high school all the time I’ve got now, it’s transitioned a lot away from crafts and arts to a lot more home décor and seasonal things. That’s kind of the big, because I think it has the bigger markup on the cheaper Chinese-made things that come over, than it does to sell like nicer art supplies and things like that.
Alex Wagner: So some people take their holidays very seriously. But I don’t believe craft stores were on the list of essential businesses, were they?
Kasi: They were not. But they tried very hard to kind of reclassify themselves as essential. There were a lot of memos that were coming in during the early days of where shutdowns were starting to happen. And they were, they were literally memos that were titled like “How to speak to authorities” so if the health department showed up here was like what you should look for in each individual shutdown order to claim that you are essential. Like we sell fabric and elastic so people are making their own masks, or we sell different, I mean, crafts stuff or art stuff for home schooling and activities. I mean, it was, they were really stretching on the definitions, but they tried very hard in lots of different ways to to claim that crafting is an essential business.
Alex Wagner: What was the conversation like with your employers? What were they telling you guys as the virus started making national news and businesses across the country started closing schools, closing cities, going on lockdown? What was the atmosphere like at Hobby Lobby?
Kasi: I would say absolutely nothing. Unless you asked specifically. There were a few things they did with putting a glorified shower curtains down in front of the cash registers. They’re kind of hanging off of rods from the ceiling and just, yeah, with like vinyl that we sell by the yard so that we didn’t have to order anything in special. And then when the stay-at-home order started coming through different places, like I said, they were more concerned with trying to stay open than they were with our health, I would say, so most of the memos and most of the stuff coming from corporate was all about how to get around closing, and not so much about changing how we were operating. All of the other stores in our district closed and we were one of the last ones that was still open, and then when the city shut down, they told us that we would have to use our personal time or our vacation time, and then we would basically just be unpaid. Then they changed that and they said they were going to do like two weeks of emergency pay, which was going to be figured at 75% of like the average hours that you worked at your regular pay. And then they changed it again and we got a call saying, well, we’re closed, but you can come in, if you like, on a voluntary basis to help clean the store or just do some displays or things, you know, working away from anybody and without customers there.
Alex Wagner: Talk to me a little bit about what kind of protections beyond the vinyl shower curtains, are you guys being offered extra hand sanitizers, gloves, masks? I mean, one would think that in a craft store, masks would be something that could be procured. Is that the case at Hobby Lobby?
Kasi: Yeah, they have, I mean, a limited supply of surgical masks that we had had from before that were just for whenever they would clean the bathrooms or clean other, you know, messes up. So there’s people that are wearing those, but there’s only like two boxes and the warehouse is out now, obviously, because you can’t get things like that. So they’re saying, you know, that you have to wear the same mask. So people are just saving their mask in their lockers. We do have a lot of homemade masks from our own fabric and elastic and things.
Alex Wagner: You guys reopened when, and how is that process?
Kasi: May 4th, so it was two weeks ago and it was chaotic at best. Initially, they only called, I think, seven to nine employees back out of everyone there. So for the first few days, we were all working like open-to-close shifts and it was insanity. We did a quarter of a million dollars our first week reopened. It was Black Friday—
Alex Wagner: Wow.
Kasi: Yeah, it was Black Friday. Sales numbers every single day. Like from the time we open till the time we closed, we were pretty much at capacity, even though we weren’t actually counting people like we were supposed to. There was a 10% limit in the reopening guidelines for the city, but our district manager said that he didn’t think it would be necessary for us to count people at first because we’d probably only be busy on maybe Friday or Saturday. But then on Friday, when we did start counting people, we hit our 10% number within the first hour, hour and a half and stayed of there the whole day.
Alex Wagner: The 10% number is, what, 10% of what, a normal store capacity?
Kasi: The building capacity, yeah, whatever the fire code number is, which for our stores like almost 1500, So the 10% number is like 150, minus whoever, the employees, and then that’s how many customers you can allow in.
Alex Wagner: And you guys weren’t keeping to that number, is that what you think?
Kasi: Not, no. We weren’t counting at all for the first three or four days. We only have four registers running at any given time and the lines are going like all the way to the back of the store.
Alex Wagner: What are people buying?
Kasi: Everything I mean, it’s like a game show where you’re just pushing your cart through and throwing stuff in your cart or something, I don’t know, hundreds of dollars of Easter, well, we had a lot of Easter left because we closed before Easter. So there was a lot of Easter decor left and then it was an 80% off when we reopened, so heaping carts of Easter decor. There are people buying fabric supplies and things like that, but not a lot. And almost no one, none of the customers almost are wearing masks. For the first hour of the day, I would say maybe 25% of customers coming in are wearing a mask. They tend to be more elderly at that point of the day. And then as the day goes on, it turns to more like teenagers, younger women and families, and it might be like 5% to 10% mask wearing. But they’re buying, I mean, they’re buying, I think they are redecorating their entire houses, I think during quarantine, they just decided I need an entire, you know, new home design.
Alex Wagner: Wow. Do you get the sense that people just have been cooped up and they’re eager to just be out there and buy something, or do you think that this is more strategic than that, more kind of you know, these things all have a specific use?
Kasi: No, I would say it mainly feels like people are just making up for lost time, like I haven’t been able to go shopping and now, to buy, you know, fun things, again, not just groceries. I’ve gotten sick of going to Walmart or the grocery store. I’ve heard that a lot from people. They want to walk around with their coffees and drink them and talk to their friends while they’re shopping and just act like everything is normal again.
Alex Wagner: How is the COVID-19 spread in your town?
Kasi: Not great. Literally, the day that the city council voted to reopen our city, they were processing, they were in the middle of processing all the test results. They did a test of an entire pork processing plant. And they had already had, I think, like 400 positives at that point. It ended up being around like, a little over 500 total for the plant. And those numbers were still coming out. This last weekend, we actually had a free—just drive in, you didn’t even have to make an appointment—testing at the hospital. And I went along with a bunch of our coworkers because one of our coworkers actually is in the hospital at this moment. He is a, he’s young. He’s only in his 20s, but he’s diabetic. And he got COVID and was sick from last Sunday.
Alex Wagner: And he was working at the store?
Kasi: Yes. He had come back and we all worked with him. I mean, we were both wearing masks. But I mean, I was around him for the whole time and I know some people, like someone got a ride home with him that day, some people ate lunch with him that day in the break room, which obviously you’re not wearing masks then. I’ve been eating in my car personally, but other people have still been using the breakroom. And yeah, he’s so he’s in the hospital. I mean, there are definitely even within the people I work with, absolute deniers, you know, it’s just a flu. It’s just, it’s no big deal. It’s going to you know, everybody is going to eventually catch it. You might as well get it over with—all of those different tropes that you hear. But even the ones that are concerned, the ones that, you know, live with elderly family members like I do or, you know, have young children or anything, that they have concerns, but I think they just, if everyone else around them is acting like it’s not a big deal, they feel pressured in a way to act like they’re fine too. And it is easy when you’re just going about, like, doing something that you did before all of this.
Alex Wagner: How do you feel going to work every day? I mean, do you feel like you can protect yourself?
Kasi: I don’t know. I mean, I feel like I’m, doing everything I possibly can. I just didn’t, I didn’t want the other employees looking to me as, I didn’t want them to take from my behavior that like they were safe, I didn’t want them to think that they were. And I’ve talked to a lot of them about this. And I mean, they feel similar to me, but they all need jobs, like, they can’t just quit or anything.
Alex Wagner: I mean, you need a job, too, I would assume, because you’re putting I mean, you’re, this is effectively a risky place to work.
Kasi: Right, yeah.
Alex Wagner: And you, and you live with someone who’s older, is that right?
Kasi: Yes. I live with my grandma. She’s in her 70s and she has M.S. So she’s got a lot of underlying conditions and health problems. And so it’s definitely very scary. I mean, I personally am just trying to kind of save as much money as I can. I did get a month worth of unemployment, which was actually more money than I make, not by, I mean by a couple hundred dollars a week or so. So I’ve just been trying to save and prepay as much bills as I can in case it comes back in the fall worse.
Alex Wagner: I think people who are consumers are a little bit torn, right? Like on one level, you want to help the people who are, who make their livelihood from, you know, retail, whether it’s online or in person. And then on the other hand, we don’t want people in retail risking their lives. So what’s your advice?
Kasi: Oh, I definitely think we should still stay home. At least use guidelines. And as far as, you know, in different areas, it’s going to be different. But we reopened when we were experiencing, you know, exponential growth. We were on that document. We were at the top of the list of the White House’s places to watch, the day we were reopening, it was 650% increases. So it just seems like—
Alex Wagner: Wow.
Kasi: It needs to be applied differently in different places.
Alex Wagner: Well, Kasi, we hope that you stay safe and that your grandma stays safe and that the road ahead, though winding, ends in a good place for you. Thank you for being brave and taking care of the people you need to. And good luck with everything.
Kasi: Thank you so much.
Alex Wagner: That’s all for this episode of Six Feet Apart. Our show is produced by Alysa Gutierrez and Lyra Smith. Lyra Smith is our story editor. Our executive producer is Sarah Geismer. Special thanks to Alison Falzetta, Stephen Hoffman and Sidney Rapp. Thanks for listening and stay safe.