Walmart Becomes a Lifeline, Online Sales Surge 74 Percent

May 20, 2020 Updated: May 20, 2020

NEW YORK—Walmart became one of the few lifelines to millions of people as the CCP virus spread, leading to surging profit and sales during the fiscal first quarter.

Online sales in the U.S. jumped 74 percent for the quarter ending April 30, which captured the brunt of the pandemic. Same-store sales rose 10 percent 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 nonessential merchandise temporarily shut down, the nation’s largest retailer had the natural advantage of carrying the very items that consumers needed during the pandemic.

But unlike its online rivals such as Amazon, Walmart enjoys an extensive network of nearly 5,000 physical stores and a variety of delivery and pick-up options that it ramped up to meet the crushing demand for essential items from paper towels to canned food. Walmart’s reputation for low prices also helped as the unemployment rate has spiraled to a 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 didn’t 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, the company had trouble keeping its shelves stocked, and its inventory fell 6.1 percent. 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.

Walmart pulled its guidance for the year, citing the chaos of the pandemic. It also pulled the plug on, an online startup that it bought for more than $3 billion in 2016 as it sought to ramp up online operations to compete with Amazon.

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 on May 19 that it’s winding down its business after stores are able to reopen and it can conduct liquidation sales.

Home Depot and Kohl’s on May 19 also joined Walmart to report the full impact of COVID-19 on financial operations, and revealed the vast disparity between those allowed to keep their doors open during the outbreak, and those that were not.

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 its stores closed, swung to a $541 million loss, and revenue tumbled more than 40 percent.

Nordstrom is expected to release its earnings results after the regular markets close on May 19. Target and Macy’s will release their financial results this week as well.

Online behemoth Amazon reported in April soaring sales in the first three months of the year, but profits slumped 29 percent because of extra costs related to the pandemic, such as paying workers overtime to keep up with a surge in orders and disinfecting its vast warehouses where orders are packed and shipped.

Walmart says it has more than 3,000 locations for grocery pickup and 1,600 locations that offer grocery delivery. Last fall, it launched “Delivery Unlimited,” a fee-based program that offers unlimited grocery delivery.

This month, the company launched Express Delivery, which gets orders to a customer’s home in less than two hours. The program has been tested in 100 stores since mid-April and will be expanded nearly 2,000 stores in the following weeks.

Walmart had a profit of $1.40 per share. Earnings, adjusted for nonrecurring 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 of $134.62 billion in the period also exceeded Street forecasts by almost $1 billion.

Walmart’s share rose close to 1 percent, or $1.07 to $128.77 in late morning trading on May 19. Its stock is up 7 percent so far this year.

By Anne D’Innocenzio. The Epoch Times contributed to this report.