Shoppers walk past a Next store
Next worked with the union Usdaw to implement new health and safety practices © REUTERS

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Next has reopened its online business in a “very limited” capacity, nearly three weeks after it halted its web operations to protect warehouse workers during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Orders reached maximum capacity after 90 minutes of trading on Tuesday and Next said it aimed to increase online opening hours once workers had been retrained.

The online store had been reopened in “a very limited way”, the company said in a statement on Tuesday, as “the idea is to begin selling in low volumes, so that we only need a small number of colleagues in each warehouse at any one time”.

Employees willing to work had returned to Next’s distribution centre near Doncaster after new measures, such as one-way corridors and staggered start times, had been implemented to ensure “rigorous social distancing”.

Customer orders will be capped at a number that “can be picked safely on any given day”, after which the website will be switched to “browse only” until the following morning. Next said only items “that our customers most need”, such as childrenswear and essential home goods, would be available to buy.

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Pressure has been mounting on retailers of “non-essential” goods to close online operations, with luxury ecommerce site Yoox Net-a-Porter and menswear label Paul Smith among those to have suspended internet sales in the UK during the coronavirus lockdown.

“Government guidance is that online retail is encouraged,” said Mark Todd, national officer at union Usdaw. “A lot of employers are seeing that as a ‘get out of jail for free’ card, missing that social distancing is a massive caveat.”

Next worked with Usdaw to implement its new health and safety practices, including establishing criteria for staff allowed to return to work. Employees who wished to remain furloughed could at this point choose to, but Next said about 3,000 members of staff had expressed an interest in working shifts.

Clive Black, analyst at Shore Capital, said any revenue would help Next, which employs more than 40,000 people and has previously warned of a £1bn hit to revenues because of coronavirus. Last year, the high street chain reported revenue of £2.15bn from ecommerce, outstripping the £1.85bn spent in its stores.

Mr Black cautioned that while there was an “essential nature to clothing”, there was a danger of overestimating demand.

He said it was hard to determine how many other retailers would follow Next’s tactic of a reduced online operation and that it depended in part on whether businesses were unionised.

“But I do think brands need to watch their reputation at this time,” he added “If they are seen to be abusing workers around corona it will be an unmitigated disaster.”

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