What Sells in a Pandemic? Weight Watchers, Pools and Cereal
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- One of the more striking features of the pandemic is the inequity of the pain it has inflicted. It has disproportionately affected Black and Latino communities. More than 16 million Americans are unemployed, nearly triple February’s levels, but investors in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index are back in the green for the year. And while some businesses are looking at a multiyear slump in demand, others are experiencing their best sales growth ever. The second-quarter earnings season brought fresh evidence of relative bright spots for spending, from the obvious demand for cleaning products to more surprising splurges like swimming pools and Weight Watchers memberships. That’s a shift from the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009. You would be hard pressed to name large companies that didn’t experience some sort of a slowdown from that particular recession, let alone any that were outright beneficiaries. There are no real winners in a global pandemic that has killed more than 150,000 people in the U.S., but the willingness of at least some Americans to keep spending on certain categories is a positive indicator and has most likely served to keep the economic downturn from being even worse. Here’s what stood out:
The unique nature of the pandemic and months spent under lockdown conditions has some consumers making the kind of large discretionary purchases that are typically the first to get cut in a downturn. New-home sales in the U.S. rose to an almost 13-year high in June, while purchases of existing homes posted the largest ever month-over-month gain as families juggling the work-from-home and virtual-learning experiments seek out bigger properties in less-urban areas. Much of this home-buying now starts virtually. That translated into a 12% gain in monthly users on Zillow Group Inc.’s sites during the second quarter. Better-than-expected sales growth in its internet and mortgages divisions should push the company’s third-quarter operating profit above the threshold it was targeting internally before the pandemic, Chief Financial Officer Allen Parker said on an earnings call last week. High on the list of priorities for some home shoppers is going to be a parking spot. A wariness of public transportation and ride-sharing has underscored the appeal of individual cars and helped the sector bounce back much more quickly than anticipated. General Motors Co. and Ford Motor Co. both reported better-than-expected second-quarter results amid a strong gain in sales once dealerships and plants were allowed to reopen in May and June. Both could return to profitability next quarter, a sharp contrast to the financial crisis when GM and Chrysler were forced into bankruptcy and Ford only barely avoided the same fate.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says outdoor activities are less risky than indoor ones, and many people are growing tired of being cooped up at home. No wonder RV-maker Thor Industries Inc. cited an “influx” of first-time buyers. Camping World Holdings Inc. said this month that demand had remained strong through the summer months and that it might be on track for its most profitable year ever. Yeti Holdings Inc. posted an 18% increase in second-quarter sales for the division that includes its luxury coolers, waterproof backpacks and fancy camping chairs. If you can’t drive your RV to the beach or a campsite on a lake, the next best option is to create your own personal waterfront oasis. Pool Corp., a distributor of parts and supplies, reported record sales in the second quarter and increased its earnings guidance for 2020. Pool filled most of that demand from existing inventory, but the revenue boom will eventually make its way to Pentair Plc, which makes pool pumps, cleaners and automated control systems. Orders are up for both new pool construction and remodels, CEO John Stauch said on the company’s earnings call last month. With most new pools taking several quarters to complete, that’s not the kind of investment that’s made lightly and not one that’s common in economic slumps. Global sales of pool equipment at Pentair fell 45% in the first quarter of fiscal 2009, for example.
Sadly, a pool remains out of reach for most people. But it’s also seemingly a good time to do something about that cabinet that has never closed properly, replace that appliance that’s making ominous noises or build that new deck. Stanley Black & Decker Inc. rode the do-it-yourself wave to 8% organic sales growth in its tools segment in June and July, compared with the year-earlier periods. Whirlpool Corp. said revenue declines in 2020 wouldn’t be as bad as previously thought, as an initial spike in demand for extra refrigerators and freezers to store all that food people were stockpiling gave way to other upgrades in the kitchen, such as ovens. HVAC systems have been another spending hot spot because a broken air conditioner makes spending 24/7 inside a home even more of a challenge. Proper ventilation is also a critical tool for combating the coronavirus. Orders for residential HVAC systems were up 100% in June compared with those in the month a year earlier and trending up more than 50% in July at Carrier Global Corp., with similar spikes at rivals Trane Technologies Plc and Johnson Controls International Plc. People are also paying closer attention to their yards. Scotts Miracle-Gro Co.’s revenue surged 28% in the quarter ended June 27, thanks to robust demand for gardening and lawn-care products. The sales surge prompted the company to raise its full-year earnings outlook.
Other Americans have apparently made a project of themselves. Rosetta Stone Inc. reported a 92% increase in bookings from a year earlier in its consumer language segment as people decided to use time stuck at home to learn Spanish or brush up on their Italian. That uptake, coupled with increased sales of its literacy products for K-12 students, led the company to boost full-year sales guidance. Rosetta Stone is reportedly looking to capitalize on the demand boom with a potential sale. Meanwhile, WW International Inc., the company behind Weight Watchers, notched 5 million subscribers in the second quarter — a count that was about even with the first quarter, the period that is typically peak season thanks to New Year’s resolutions. The pandemic is prompting a “radical re-appraisal” of life and work in which “health and wellness is definitely moving from what I would think of prior as a luxury to a necessity,” CEO Mindy Grossman said at a recent conference. WW’s quarterly revenue fell from a year earlier, as many of its brick-and-mortar studios were temporarily closed because of the pandemic. But digital subscriptions — a more profitable model that the company is trying to pivot toward anyway — rose 23%.
The pandemic has put hygiene and sanitization into sharp focus. That has shown up in obvious ways, such as a 22% surge in sales for Clorox Co. in the second quarter and a 19% increase in sales of 3M Co.’s personal-protective gear, including N95 masks. Cintas Corp. is known for its corporate uniforms, but it also helps supply companies with items like hand-sanitizer and masks. Sales for the unit that houses this business grew 22% in the most recent quarter on an organic basis, with demand for safety products more than making up for a decline in the restocking of office first-aid cabinets. It’s not just disinfectants, though. With people spending so many more hours at home, the dishes are piling up more frequently and the floors are becoming grimy faster. That helped power sales of Procter & Gamble Co.’s Dawn dish soap and Swiffer brands in the quarter, which contributed to a 14% increase in organic sales in the company’s fabric and home care division. Colgate-Palmolive Co., too, said it was struggling to keep up with sustained demand for dish soap. Reynolds Consumer Products Inc. recorded a double-digit increase in sales in its Hefty waste and storage bags unit as people generate more trash at home. Americans are also reluctant to share homes that may already feel a bit crowded with bugs and other pests. Rollins Inc., a pest-control company that operates under the Orkin brand among others, said it had outpaced its previous 10 best sales days during the second quarter and the month of July, largely through inbound call volume.
IN THE KITCHEN
Americans have been eating more meals and snacks at home amid widespread teleworking and safety concerns about visiting restaurants. The chaos of the outside world also has many people reaching for comfort food. Demand for previously forsaken goods like cereal and frozen foods is lifting sales at companies such as Kellogg Co., which raised its guidance for the full year. Newell Brands Inc., the company behind Crock-Pots and Calphalon nonstick pans, said sales at U.S. retailers of its appliances and cookware products were up “double-digits” from a year ago. The stay-at-home lifestyle and a reluctance to venture into grocery stores has also benefited meal-kit maker HelloFresh SE, which increased its ranks of global active customers to 4.2 million in the most recent quarter, up from 2.4 million a year earlier. Its smaller, U.S.-based rival, Blue Apron Holdings Inc., also had an increase in demand. Crucially, both companies experienced a jump in orders per customer, a sign that the services are becoming more of a habit for their users.
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Brooke Sutherland is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering deals and industrial companies. She previously wrote an M&A column for Bloomberg News.
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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