Retail’s Boom-and-Bust 2020, in 10 Charts
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The pandemic delivered a core-shaking shock to the consumer-goods industry, abruptly reshaping what people were buying where they were buying, and how they were buying. For some companies, it has led to deep damage that is still fully revealing itself. For others, it has created opportunity.
As 2020 comes to close, it’s worth reflecting on these changes and where they have left the sector heading into 2021. Here, 10 charts tell the tale:
Toilet paper on a roll. As the reality of the pandemic came into focus for consumers in mid-March, the grocery business was gripped by a wave of pantry-loading that resulted in massive spikes in sales of certain products — and eventually, empty shelves. In a single week in March, sales of liquid hand soap soared 320% from a year earlier, while purchases of frozen meat climbed 132% and sales of toilet paper surged 236%. Hand sanitizer, meanwhile, was in such demand that year-over-year sales skyrocketed more than 1,000% in each week from early May to early July. Such extraordinary jolts of buying fever scrambled the consumer products industry, with brands taking steps such as bringing on third-party manufacturing partners and dropping less popular items to focus on the production of top sellers. Although demand has retreated from the frenzy of the early days of the pandemic, sales of consumer packaged goods have still held above last year’s levels. With widespread distribution of Covid-19 vaccines months away and many people still spending a large chunk of their time at home, strong sales in this category are likely to continue.
Online grocery carts fill up. Before the pandemic, grocery was something of a final frontier in e-commerce, remaining mostly untouched by retail’s digital transformation. Even though supermarkets and big-box stores were able to stay open throughout spring lockdowns, masses of shoppers decided to try online grocery shopping — include curbside pickup — for the first time or began doing more of it as a safety precaution. Some consumers will go back to their old, store-centric routine after the crisis is over, but many will stick to their new shopping habits. Years from now, this will be remembered as a tipping point for adoption, and one that significantly altered the showdown between Walmart Inc., Target Corp., Amazon.com Inc. and Kroger Co.
Big tickets. As customers adhered to social-distancing guidelines, they packed their spending into a limited number of stock-up trips and skipped the in-between, fill-in stops. This behavior is perhaps most clearly illustrated in the results of Walmart’s U.S. business, where declines in transactions, a proxy for traffic, have been more than offset by a boom in ticket, or the average amount spent per order. Relatedly, this unusual year brought changes in conversion, or the rate at which shoppers go from browsing to buying. When consumers set foot in a store in this environment, their intent to buy something was quite strong. That’s why, for example, there was such a disparity in the decrease in foot traffic recorded over Black Friday weekend — down 42% from last year, according to RetailNext — and the drop in brick-and-mortar sales, which was only 24%.
Stuff Rules. Millions of Americans lost their jobs or experienced economic hardship because of the pandemic, a dynamic that threatened to decimate retailers’ sales. That’s not how things played out, though. While some consumers have moved to the sidelines amid the economic gloom, others are redirecting the dollars they might once have spent on plane tickets, hotel stays or movie tickets toward retailers, perhaps to buy a new big-screen TV or home-gym equipment. The fact that consumers have had so few options for spending on experiences has made the retail industry’s recovery easier. The tables will likely turn when vaccines are distributed widely and pent-up demand for travel and other services is unleashed.
Spending Shift. Social distancing and lockdowns rearranged our lifestyles and in doing so, rechanneled our demand. The result: sales for some products froze up and caught fire for others. It was a bleak year, of course, for purchases of dressy clothes and lipstick. But there was softness in less-obvious places, too: ConAgra Brands Inc. said demand for edible seeds declined when baseball seasons were canceled, while Mondelez International Inc. said chewing-gum sales fell as social outings dwindled. At the same time, the pandemic acted as rocket fuel for sales of a wide array of products, including frozen foods, massage appliances, Crocs, printers, mattresses, snowshoes, rice cookers, bicycles and hair masks. Among the most notable beneficiaries of stay-at-home living are the twin empires of the home-improvement business, Home Depot Inc. and Lowe’s Cos., which each pulled in more than a year’s worth of sales growth in the third quarter after having achieved similarly gangbusters growth in the previous three-month period. Commerce Department data show what a banner year it was for these types of stores as consumers created home offices or splurged on palatial patios.
The Zoom phenomenon. Amid the aforementioned category-level shift in spending, some consumer brands emerged as breakout stars among investors much as Zoom Video Communications Inc. did with the surge in remote working. Shares of Peloton Interactive Inc. boomed more than 436% this year as orders piled up for its connected stationary bikes and treadmills. Etsy Inc. was the best-performing stock in the S&P 500 Index for part of this year as shoppers thronged the site in search of face masks. (Etsy ceded the top spot to Tesla Inc. when the electric-car maker joined the index this month. ) After sinking in late March, shares of Yeti Holdings Inc. have soared, now up more than 100% year to date, as investors realized its coolers and thermoses would be in high demand as people spent more time outside. It could be a challenge for these social-distance-friendly stocks to keep investors happy in 2021 as they lap the strong results delivered in 2020 and as more widely available vaccines may yet again change consumer spending patterns.
Storefront shakeout. Lockdowns and capacity restrictions at physical stores created a sales convulsion from which many chains have struggled to recover. The situation hastened the journey of already-fragile retailers J. Crew Group, Neiman Marcus and J.C. Penney Co. into bankruptcy in the first half of the year. That was only the beginning: Others including Sur La Table and Stein Mart liquidated stores after filing for protection from creditors. Even chains not in bankruptcy court were forced to reassess, with Nordstrom Inc., for example, announcing 16 stores would be permanently shuttered after initial lockdowns. Bankruptcies and store closings reverberate throughout the industry in varied ways. They represent an opportunity for healthier competitors to pick up market share. But closings also sprinkle malls with empty storefronts that threaten to make those centers less viable over the long haul. CoStar Group estimates that more than 11,000 store closings were announced this year through Dec. 1.
Rough run for workers. The arrival of the pandemic scrambled the retail industry’s large labor force. Workers at nonessential retailers were, in many cases, furloughed or out of a job, while others suddenly found themselves on the front lines of a dangerous public-health situation. Big chains offered hazard pay and bonuses in response to the circumstances, but in some cases, the measures felt insufficiently generous considering the explosive sales growth a given retailer was enjoying or the share buybacks it was undertaking. Dollar General Corp. expects to devote $2.5 billion to share repurchases this fiscal year, a figure that, according to a Brookings Institution analysis, is 14 times what it has pledged for pandemic-related compensation. Overall, despite big hiring sprees by the likes of Kroger and Walmart, retail employment has not returned to its pre-pandemic level.
Dining devastation. The pandemic has taken a toll on the restaurant industry, with a staggering 110,000 restaurants closing amid capacity restrictions and increased dining at home, according to the National Restaurant Association. The pain has not been shared equally, though. Work-from-home arrangements have been hard on the likes of Starbucks Corp., whose cafes are prolific in dense urban areas that have been empty of office workers for much of the year. Casual eateries, which rely on packed dining rooms that are either disallowed by local regulation or are simply undesirable right now, remain in a deep sales hole. That contrasts with the relatively quick recovery made by the fast-food segment since the early days of the pandemic. McDonald’s Corp., for instance, returned to comparable sales growth in the U.S. by the third quarter, helped by its drive-through windows and well-established carryout options.
Paying the price. This year presented retailers with unique conditions to wield pricing power. This showed up in a number of ways. For one, upscale clothing and accessories titans Ralph Lauren Corp., Capri Holdings Inc. and Tapestry Inc. were able to pad their gross margins by keeping the lid on promotions. But the clearest examples of price insensitivity were in the grocery business, where revenue exploded for reasons more complex than that people were eating more at home. In some cases, shoppers traded up to fancier labels, likely reflecting a desire to treat themselves in a lonely time. In others, stores and brands cut back on promotions and, in some cases, raised prices amid strong demand, contributing to a year of roaring sales growth.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Sarah Halzack is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the consumer and retail industries. She was previously a national retail reporter for the Washington Post.
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