Since England entered into a national lockdown this week I've been contacted by many CEX staff members concerned about the chain's plans to stay operational when all non-essential businesses are supposed to close, and all employees are required to work from home where possible.
CEX is one of several non-essential high street retail chains which have opted to stay open to offer click-and-collect. This is permitted by government guidelines, which describe click-and-collect as a service "where goods are pre-ordered and collected off the premises".
On top of this, CEX continues to offer the opposite service, which it terms Drop & Go. As the name implies, this offering is designed to let customers drop off used goods in-person at CEX stores after having generated a receipt for them online. Payment is subsequently made via bank transfer after the items have been unpacked by staff, cleaned and tested.
It's this service in particular which has sparked concern among CEX staff members speaking to me under condition of anonymity in order to protect their jobs. One staff member I spoke to said company bosses justifying this service as the kind of click-and-collect defined by government rules was simply an attempt at "toeing the line of legality".
"And don't get me started on the Covid deniers berating staff for not being able to let them in to browse."
"Drop & Go involves handling people's unclean items at the door," another staff member described. "In my area of the country we have a lot of the new [Covid] strain and the staff are very worried that we are touching dirty stock from customers' homes. I have no idea if this is even allowed under the government's guidelines.
"And with CEX's Click-and-Collect, you don't pay online, we have to take payment at the door, one-to-one, face-to-face with customers, sometimes having to touch their cards or accidentally being touched by them due to us having to hold the card reader and people not thinking when touching it."
Yet another staff member I spoke to said the table they were using to serve customers (and also block the shop's doors) had to be quickly found by staff, and was too low - meaning the plastic shielding provided by the chain was also too low down to be effective.
"Obviously some items arrive in frankly disgusting condition and haven't been pre-cleaned," they said, "and whilst the company are providing sanitisers etc. it just doesn't feel sufficient. Items are bought straight into store and handled immediately, oftentimes by more than one person. And don't get me started on the Covid deniers berating staff for not being able to let them in to browse!"
Standard plastic game cases get a wipe down before being placed immediately back on sale, while items which have fabric on them are given a three-day quarantine.
Some CEX staff say they are uncomfortable telling customers to come and drop off stock at stores while the government is advising that all non-essential travel should be avoided. A second trip is also required if Drop & Go items are too dirty or broken to be traded, so the customer can pick them up again.
Government guidelines state that members of the public should stay at home except to "shop for basic necessities", exercise or seek medical help, among other very limited reasons. Staff told me they have raised concerns with CEX management about customers being stopped by police and asked to explain why their journey was essential - and getting in trouble for having told them it was fine to visit CEX to drop off some DVDs.
"I understand the powers-that-be wanting to maximise their profits (it is still a business after all) and obviously I'd rather people continue to earn a stable and reasonable income by working - but there's absolutely no good reason that I, and hundreds of other employees should be risking exposure to Covid-19 by serving someone at the door to a shop during a national lockdown, when we could just as easily function making online-only sales," a staff member said.
"They are still opting to encourage people to come to stores."
"It's not like the company needs people delivering potential stock to them in-person to thrive either, as they have a functional system in place to allow people to ship their goods to head office to be tested/purchased with no human contact at all - yet they are still opting to encourage people to come to stores?!"
I have seen communication between CEX staff and management raising the above concerns, and the issues being brushed aside and left unaddressed. The chain did not respond to Eurogamer's requests for comment.
While CEX is far from the only high street store to ask staff to provide a click-and-collect service for customers, others have decided to fully close.
GAME's help website states that its stores are now "closed in line with government guidelines" and that it will not be able to fulfil any in-store pre-orders. Any outstanding pre-orders made in-store will be automatically cancelled, with customers encouraged to pre-order online and have the item delivered instead. Back in November's lockdown, GAME did operate an extremely limited click-and-collect service on the launch day of both the PS5 and Xbox Series S/X, but this was only so customers could pick up pre-orders for new consoles.
Another interesting comparison is with Waterstones. Branches of the UK's biggest bookseller initially stayed open in March 2020, during last year's first national lockdown. Waterstones boss James Daunt was widely criticised for arguing that the chain was "no different to a supermarket or pharmacy", but quickly U-turned and closed all 280 of its UK branches after staff made national headlines by saying they were being put at risk. Daunt continued to argue against shop closures during November's second nationwide lockdown - making the point that branches of WHSmith which sold books had stayed open as they were alternatively classed as a newsagent - but still kept branches shut. In the current lockdown, all Waterstones branches in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are fully closed and click and collect services are not being run - a decision made to keep staff safe.
Eurogamer first reported on CEX staff concerns last June, when the chain's plans to re-open for browsing and not require any quarantine period for traded-in stock alarmed workers (and differed on both fronts from policies put in place at GAME). When shops opened, staff complained of "flimsy" protective screens and no reduction in opening hours despite an increased workload due to additional required cleaning. At the time, CEX told Eurogamer its policies were "driven by safety".
I'm reminded of a comment given to me last month by another CEX staff member while discussing a very different topic - the decision by CEX bosses to sell PlayStation 5 for £815, a vastly-inflated price point from its RRP. "CEX is legally in the right," they said, "but morally I find it repugnant".
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