Thermal scanners, masks and a thinner staff: inside Patagonia’s new-look distribution center in Reno
Yessica Delgado was nervous. For 13 years, she strolled into the Patagonia distribution center by swiping her employee ID at two doors and making eye contact with the security guard. She then entered a busy warehouse, where hundreds of workers were lockstep in their duties, steps away from each other, communicating over the thrums of conveyor belts, helping the facility pump out thousands of orders a day.
The week of April 13, she knew, was going to be different. That was the first week the Patagonia distribution center, which serves the entire world, was back in operation after the outdoor retailer’s month-long shutdown of its e-commerce business in North America due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“We didn’t know what to expect,” Delgado, wearing a face covering, shrugged. “Because our jobs require a lot of communication, we didn’t know how that would work.”
Now, when Delgado gets to work, she strides through doors already propped open into a room where a thermal scanner takes her temperature, then walks onto the ground floor of a warehouse with only a smattering of workers, all staying 10 feet or more apart, all gloved and masked.
And that’s not where the safety protocols end. Fifteen hand-built hand-washing stations are spread throughout the warehouse; multi-person bathrooms are limited to one person at a time; the fitness area is taped off despite gyms in Nevada being allowed to reopen; and 500 service center employees normally housed in the building are working from home for the foreseeable future.
For Delgado, upon seeing the increased safety protocols Patagonia put in place, her nervous energy quickly downshifted to comfort.
“It gives us peace of mind knowing that we’re taking as many precautions as possible,” Delgado said with smiling eyes. “I definitely feel a lot safer here than outside. It shows how much Patagonia actually cares for their employees. They’re not focused on making money; our health is first.”
A PROACTIVE APPROACH
Chris Joyce, director of the distribution center, said that is exactly why the company made the decision to not only close operations for four weeks because of the pandemic, but also outfit the facility to be COVID compliant — and then some.
“I think this idea that we put family first and we care about our people is one of our higher values,” Joyce, standing 10 feet away, said through a mask. “To see some of the stories about other companies having outbreaks within their space and that being the commonality … we didn’t want to do that; we didn’t want to contribute to that. We wanted to hold the safety of our employees higher than the idea that we need to profit.”
Patagonia, in fact, announced the temporary closure of its Reno-based distribution center on March 13, four days before Gov. Steve Sisolak announced the state shutdown. At the same time, Patagonia closed its 39 stores, including the Patagonia Outlet in downtown Reno, that are dotted across the U.S. — stores that have remained closed despite retail restrictions gradually lifting nationwide.
Since late May, the seller of outdoor gear has offered curbside pickup at a handful of stores, Joyce noted. As of early June, the Patagonia website listed nine stores, including Reno, that offer curbside pickup.
“Our CEO (Rose Marcario) has been pretty clear about a ‘first to close, last to open’ sort of approach to this,” Joyce said. “We really don’t see this crisis being over. We see the restrictions being lifted, which is great, as long as people behave safely.”
BACK IN BUSINESS
When the distribution center reopened on April 13, Joyce said the company slowly folded people back into operation, starting out with 50 crew members spread across its 342,000-square-foot facility in Reno and 400,000-square-feet of receiving space in neighboring Verdi.
Two months later, Patagonia’s distribution center — which typically employs between 400-500 people, depending on time of year — has brought back 225 employees. Notably, all staff was fully paid with benefits during the duration the distribution center was closed, Joyce said.
In order to adhere to social distancing, and because Patagonia’s e-commerce is in a slower season, Joyce said about half of the staff has been furloughed until the beginning of August. He added that those employees are still receiving full benefits from the company.
Though the company is not in a peak season, employees at Patagonia’s distribution center have been keeping busy — while keeping their distance — since the facility reopened in mid-April.
“We are reduced by 50% staffing so the workload is a little bit heavier, but it’s not too bad,” said John Ramos, a training lead currently filling in as a shipping lead. “We do really physical work, so sometimes it does get kind of hard to breathe, so we have to learn how to pace ourselves a little bit differently. Other than that, I feel like the more days we go on doing it like this we get a little bit more used to it.”
As a trainer, Ramos said the masks also create a barrier, in more ways than one, when he’s tying to communicate with a colleague. Not to mention, instead of being a shoulder-tap away, Ramos has to stay 10 feet away when he talks.
“As you can hear, there’s a lot of belts going on, so it’s pretty loud already,” Ramos said. “The job does require a lot of communication for everything to get done right, but we’re finding that balance.”
When the Patagonia distribution center reopened, Joyce expected the company’s e-commerce to be trending down.
That hasn’t been the case.
“We were all surprised,” Joyce said. “We were sort of anticipating that we might be about half of last year, and we’re actually seeing almost double last year in the e-commerce channel. Retail is obviously shuttered right now, but e-comm is definitely making up for that. It’s been a very, very healthy business.”
And Joyce does not see that changing, especially as e-commerce becomes even more and more commonplace in the age of the coronavirus.
To wit: e-commerce sales were about 40% higher for the week of May 26-June 1, compared with its pre-pandemic benchmark week of Feb. 24-March 1, according to Signifyd, an ecommerce security and fraud prevention vendor. Zooming in, the leisure and outdoor category was up 139% for the week May 26-June 1, Signifyd reported.
“We’re seeing a really healthy response to our reopening,” Joyce said. “It’s certainly not the reduced business that we thought we were going to see as a company. We’re busy all day everyday here, which is a really fun business to manage instead of the highs and lows. We hope to bring more people through as the business continues to climb.”
Company VP Ed Pier says DC Logistics will move into its new North Valleys location in February and plans to increase its Reno workforce to 150-200 employees; pay rates will range from $17-$24 per hour.