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Sports Direct U-turns on opening after backlash

SPORTS DIRECT has said it will close its stores in a major U-turn after initially calling for its workers to continue selling sports and fitness equipment in the face of coronavirus.

The leisure retailer, owned by Mike Ashley, has also hiked prices by more than 50 per cent on some sports equipment today in the wake of the pandemic, according to internal documents.

And another of his Frasers Group retailers, Jack Wills, is forcing staff into stores despite government advice to stay at home unless you are an ‘essential’ worker, employees said.

The U-turn on opening stores comes after the retailer wrote to all workers within 30 minutes of prime minister Boris Johnson’s decision to close non-essential retailers, telling them its position selling sporting and fitness equipment made it a vital asset during a national shutdown.

In the original letter, Sports Direct’s chief financial officer Chris Wootton said: ‘Against the backdrop of the closure of gyms the demand for these types of products has increased exponentially as the population looks to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

‘Consequently, we are uniquely well placed to help keep the UK as fit and healthy as possible during this crisis and thus our Sports Direct and Evans Cycles stores will remain open where possible to allow us to do this (in accordance with the government’s current social distancing guidance).’

But customers and politcians hit out at the business for its plan to keep stores open, with Labour Party chairman Ian Lavery telling company majority owner Mr Ashley to ‘take some responsibility’ and ‘shut up shop’.

Labour MP Jess Phillips also criticised the chain, tweeting: ‘Massive mugs notwithstanding there is nothing people cannot live without in Sports Direct.’

Mr Wooton has since clarified its stores would not reopen until ‘given the go-ahead by the government’.

But in one message sent to staff this morning, the company wrote ‘please continue to head into work as we have been instructed last night’.

And over at Jack Wills, one member of staff told PA that workers were sitting in stores waiting for instructions.

Wishing to remain anonymous, the staff member said: ‘We feel like we’re putting ourselves and others at risk by not staying at home like the government has told us to. I’ve got colleagues feeling frustrated and angry.

‘We feel disrespected by Mike Ashley’s decisions to try and keep the company trading. The lack of communication and plan when they knew this was likely is embarrassing.’

Also today, Sports Direct sent a document to staff, seen by PA, which shows the lines that should have price rises applied.

Because the company operates a system of having ‘ticket’ prices, followed by ‘reduced’ stickers, it can be unclear what price a product was ever sold at.

Pricing documents show that an Everlast 4kg kettle bell has gone up from £9.99 to £14.99 — although the sticker will still say the ‘original’ ticket price was £19.99.

The cost of a 12kg kettle bell by Everlast, which is owned by Sports Direct’s parent company Frasers Group, is now £39.99, up from £29.99.

Other items include by Slazenger, Lonsdale and several other well-known brands owned by Frasers.

Rival retailers such as JD Sports have confirmed that their stores will remain shut in the face of the virus, until government guidance changes.

Meanwhile, major banks and building societies are temporarily reducing their opening hours and/or shutting branches as coronavirus spreads.

Social distancing measures are also being imposed in branches to help limit the spread of Covid-19 — which may result in longer queues outside.

Some providers are encouraging customers to only visit a branch if it is absolutely necessary, with digital and telephone banking services available.