openDemocracyUK: Investigation

Billionaire offshore retailer accused of ‘putting profit above staff’ during coronavirus

The Range says it’s selling ‘essential items’. Staff say: ‘We have no hand sanitiser but we are encouraging people to come in and buy hot tubs’.

Peter Geoghegan Jenna Corderoy
Peter Geoghegan Jenna Corderoy
2 April 2020
Copyright Mary and Angus Hogg and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

A major British retailer has been accused of “putting lives at risk” by offering minimal protection for staff on the shopfloor. A number of staff at the Range, which has 175 stores open across the UK, have told openDemocracy that the company has “prioritised profits over people”.

In March, the UK government ordered all non-essential shops to close. The Range, which was founded by billionaire Chris Dawson and is controlled offshore, sells mainly garden and homeware with a limited amount of frozen food in some stores.

Speaking to openDemocracy, staff have accused the Range of failing to implement social distancing within stores until recent days and criticised what they say is the aggressive selling of non-essential items.

“There was no focus on the staff at all until last week when they panicked and said that you needed to stay two metres apart,” said a Range employee who asked to remain anonymous.

“I am running out of gloves. I have no hand sanitizer. Yet I am encouraging people to come in and buy hot tubs.”

In one Range store it was claimed that almost half of the staff had self-isolated on statutory sick pay, which is only £92 a week. “Why would they come in and risk the lives of themselves?” one staff member said.

Despite thousands signing a petition calling on the Range to close, stores across Britain and Ireland have chosen to remain open. On April 1, the Range had a 20 per cent discount sale on a range of items including picture frames and lampshades.

“I thought it was an April Fool’s joke. I couldn’t believe they were asking me to put my staff in such a dangerous situation,” one manager in a regional Range outlet said.

“We have people wandering around the shop with garden chairs and light fittings in the middle of a pandemic.”

It feels like The Range is profiteering off the virus.

Employee at The Range

Basildon council leader Gavin Callaghan has written to the Range’s founder Chris Dawson calling on him to close stores. He told openDemocracy that during coronavirus crisis: “we are seeing the best of British business and, sadly, we are seeing the worst, and the Range will fall into the latter category”.

The risks posed to shop workers during the pandemic were highlighted when a Co-op worker in Somerset died after contracting the coronavirus. Her husband called on retailers to provide personal protective equipment to staff.

The Range has said that it has implemented the latest public health guidance including enhanced cleaning routines and social distancing and encouraging customers to pay contactless instead of using cash. The company has also said that it sells essential items as outlined by the government’s coronavirus lockdown rules.

Business as usual

The Range was set up in 1989 by Chris Dawson a market trader in Plymouth with an admiration for Sir Philip Green. Dawson, who has described himself as a “wheeler dealer rock star”, owns a number plate DE11 BOY, in honour of the Only Fools and Horses sitcom character.

Chris_Dawson_accepts_his_Ernst_&_Young_awards.jpg
Chris Dawson accepts his Ernst & Young awards | TheRangePress

Last year, the Times revealed that Dawson had switched ownership of his main business to his wife, saving them millions of pounds in tax. He transferred his shares to her after she moved to Jersey, a tax haven, in 2016. She did not have to pay any UK tax when the firm’s parent company paid a £39.5 million dividend in 2018. The Range made £86 million in profit in the last financial year.

One Range store manager said that the company had taken advantage of vague government guidance to remain open during the lockdown. “The government says that you can only go out for ‘essential supplies’ but when you provide such a wooly definition of ‘essential supplies’ businesses will take advantage.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the lockdown on March 23. Three days, the Range circulated a letter to staff to present to the authorities whilst travelling to and from work. The letter said that it was vital that stores remain open “for our local communities to be able to purchase” essential items.

Screenshot 2020-04-02 at 17.38.22.png

Most Range stores sell a limited amount of food. Some outlets contain branches of the supermarket chain Iceland, but most do not. As the Bristol Post reported, a few days before Johnson’s announcement some Range stores had installed new freezers for frozen food, to ensure that they were classified as an “essential” business during the coronavirus lockdown.

A manager at a Range store elsewhere in the UK told openDemocracy that “this freezer appeared, with about 30 frozen pizzas in it. It’s just to get around the rules.”

Another employee, a woman in her mid-60s in southwest England, said: “On March 22, I arrived to work and was surprised to see that a lorry was there waiting to deliver one small freezer which apparently was an attempt to keep the store open.

“On Monday, March 23 I went to work, and everything was normal despite most of the non-essential shops being closed, which made me think that we had to be next to close. That evening Boris Johnson announced the closure of all non-essential shops.

“I finally felt relieved, but that lasted a mere five minutes as I received a text telling me it was 'business as usual' and I was to report to work at 7 am the next morning as The Range is classed as a hardware store. I really did not want to go to work on the Tuesday as being older I felt more at risk, but I feared for my job and my income if I did not go.”

Earlier this week, a Daily Mail front page heavily criticised shoppers at a Range store in the East Midlands, photographing customers emerging with potted plants and wallpaper. But staff who spoke to us said that the blame should rest with the decision to keep selling non-essential items.

“It feels like The Range is profiteering off the virus. If the store cornered off the non-essentials items, The Range would have very little to sell as my store has limited hardware, and our food section consists of pot noodles and a half-filled freezer,” one staff member said.

The Range has introduced a 10 per cent discount for all NHS staff and health workers in the Republic of Ireland but many staff would prefer to see the store close. “How are we supporting the community when the community is coming in to purchase non-essential items and exacerbating an emergency situation?” one manager said.

Despite the coronavirus lockdown, the Range has been emailing customers suggesting they “add a spa to their garden” or “control natural light with our colours and blinds”.

“I have never sold so much DIY and garden stuff. There are people coming in all day buying this stuff,” one Range staff member said.

Basildon council leader Gavin Callaghan said: “The Range might argue that they did well because they made a lot of money out of it but from a health and safety point of view I think the Range were incredibly slow to see just how dangerous their operation was for thousands of people who were going in and out of their stores.”

The Range has so far declined to avail of the British government’s coronavirus scheme that allows workers to be furloughed on at least 80 per cent of their pay. According to communications from the Range’s human resources department, staff who are self-isolating need to return to work after 14 days or get a further sick note from their GP to receive statutory sick pay.

In recent days, the Range has introduced new measures in stores including public address announcements in store and a marshall at the entrance to each outlet advising customers of what constitutes an essential purchase.

But online many have called on the Range to do more. On Twitter, the hashtag #closetherange has been popular. On the company’s Facebook page numerous users have called on the company to stop sales of non-essential products and to consider shutting stores until the lockdown is over.

On the decision to remain open during the lockdown, the Range has said: "Our store teams have been briefed on the latest government health and safety guidelines and are taking the necessary actions to help ensure the safety of our customers and colleagues.

"This includes the implementation of enhanced cleaning routines and social distancing. For the safety of other shoppers and staff, we ask that you keep a distance of at least 2m (6ft) apart and avoid physical contact as far as possible while shopping in store with us.”

When Bristol Live contacted chief executive Alex Simpkin directly he said: “There has been no response because our press office are all in self-isolation and lockdown, so aren’t available. There will be no comment on this, I am ending the conversation now.”

Businesses behaving badly

Although many leading British businesses closed in the wake of the government shutdown, some have been criticised for their approach to the coronavirus crisis.

Mike Ashley was forced to climb down from a pledge to keep his Sports Direct stores open during the pandemic. Conservative peer and Next boss Lord Wolfson, and Wetherspoons’ boss and Brexit backer Tim Martin, have also been heavily criticised for their treatment of staff during the crisis.

The Range’s founder Chris Dawson, known as the ‘Deluxe Del Boy’, was criticised for blocking a disabled parking space with his £200,000 Ferrari at the opening of a Range store in Devon last year. Dawson was earlier castigated for parking across the entrance to an undertakers, blocking a body from being taken in. Grieving relatives were said to be “distraught”.

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