NEW YORK – Walmart emerged as one of the few lifelines to millions of people as the coronavirus spread, leading to surging profit and sales for the world's largest retailer.
Online sales in the U.S. jumped 74% for its fiscal first quarter that ended April 30, which captured the brunt of the pandemic's outbreak. Same-store sales rose 10% at U.S. Walmart stores on strong sales of food, health and wellness goods.
At a time when a huge swath of stores that sell non-essential merchandise temporarily shut down, Walmart has the natural advantage of carrying the items consumers need during a pandemic.
But unlike its online rivals like Amazon, Walmart enjoys an extensive network of nearly 5,000 stores and a variety of delivery and pick-up options that it ramped up to meet crushing demand for essential items. Walmart's reputation for low prices also helped as the unemployment rate has spiraled to the high level since the Great Depression.
“Having a wide range of fulfillment options, including delivery to home, collection from store – and by using stores for fulfillment – allowed Walmart to ramp up capacity in a way that many other players struggled to do,” said Neil Saunders, managing director at GlobalData Retail. “We also believe that by using stores effectively, Walmart mitigated some of the higher costs associated with the online channel.”
Walmart shoppers did not limit their purchases to just essential items, using their federal stimulus checks to buy clothing, TVs and video games, which helped boost sales in April. Walmart also said it's seeing gains in new customers from across all income brackets.
At the same time, company, which is based in Bentonville, Arkansa, had trouble keeping its shelves stocked and its inventory fell 6.1%. Costs soared as well, to the tune of $900 million – all of it related to the pandemic.
Cash bonuses were issued to all hourly workers and Walmart upped pay by $2 per hour at its warehouses. It rolled out an emergency leave policy and spent money on shields at checkout lines. Still, it reported a higher operating profit.
Before the pandemic, there was already a broadening gap between big box stores and mall-based chains that had struggled to follow customers online. The crisis has accelerated that trend, pushing clothing chains further into peril.
J. Crew, J.C. Penney, Neiman Marcus and Stage Stores have all sought Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection this month. Pier 1 Imports, Inc., which filed for Chapter 11 in February, said Tuesday that it's winding down its business after stores are able to reopen and it can conduct liquidation sales.
The earnings picture is looking dismal for the fiscal first quarter.
Ken Perkins, president of research firm Retail Metrics, said he expects earnings will be down 36.6% for the 103 retailers he tracks compared to the year-ago period. Excluding Walmart, that figure would be down 45.5%.
Home Depot, another critical supply line for those sheltering at home and focusing on outdoor and indoor projects, reported strong sales and $850 million in additional costs related to COVID-19, mostly to compensate its workers.
Kohl's, with it stores temporarily closed, swung to a $541 million loss and revenue tumbled more than 40%.
Target and Macy's will release their financial results this week as well.
At a glance
Strong quarter: Walmart said Tuesday it had profit of $1.40 per share. Earnings, adjusted for non-recurring gains, were $1.18 per share. That exceeds the per-share earnings of $1.10 that Wall Street was looking for, according to a survey by Zacks Investment Research.
Revenue report: The retailer saw $134.62 billion in the period, also exceeding Street forecasts by almost $1 billion.
Stock market reaction: Walmart's shares fell $2.71, or 2.1%, to close at $124.95 Tuesday, but its stock is up 5% so far this year.