L.L.Bean CEO says Congress must do more to address ‘serious’ retail crisis

By guest author Kevin Stankiewicz from CNBC

Many U.S. retailers are facing a financial shock from the coronavirus that has yet to be fully addressed by Washington lawmakers, L.L.Bean CEO Stephen Smith said Monday.

Stephen Smith

“I think it’s a really serious situation, and I actually don’t think it’s getting enough attention,” Smith told CNBC’s Courtney Reagan on “Power Lunch.”

Smith said his concern was concentrated around “middle market retail” — not companies selling essential goods like groceries or small mom-and-pop stores.

He said essential retailers were holding up amid the coronavirus pandemic, while retailers with less than 500 employees are eligible for the small business loans in the USD 2 trillion stimulus package signed Friday by President Donald Trump.

But there is a “huge segment in the middle” that is so far “being missed,” he said.

“All of those apparel retailers, every label of a piece of clothing that someone is wearing right now, all of them are struggling mightily with full rent, full payroll and, if they’re store-based, close to zero sales,” Smith said.

Smith said that segment of the retail landscape has close to “30 million employees or supporting employees.”

“That’s a group that needs attention in the next stimulus package for sure,” he added.

Smith’s comments come as lawmakers in both the House and Senate are not scheduled to meet before April 20, following last week’s passage of the unprecedented $2 trillion economic relief package. However, leaders in both chambers say they could return to Washington before then as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to evolve in the U.S.

Congress has now passed three bills to address the coronavirus crisis, which has upended daily life and brought the U.S. economy to a near halt. Lawmakers including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have signaled that additional relief bills may follow.

Medical masks

LL Bean is making medical face masks using material from its dog beds

L.L.Bean is also doing its part to address the ongoing shortage of protective equipment for medical workers, Smith said.

“A number of our employees said, ‘Hey, we are the best stitchers, cutters and sewers. We make the best boots in the world. … We can make masks, gowns and booties as well,’ and they immediately started experimenting,” Smith said.

The Freeport, Maine-based retailer zeroed in on making medical masks out of the company’s dog-bed liners. “It’s breathable. It’s very durable. It’s washable,” Smith said.

L.L.Bean is currently making 5000 masks daily, Smith said, with plans to ramp up to about 10000 by the end of the week.

L.L.Bean’s masks are being tested by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.