November 17, 2020 12:45 PM, EST

COVID-19 Has Changed Shopping for Good, Retail Giants Predict

A Walmart store in Rolling Meadows, Ill., is seen from its parking lot on Nov. 5.A Walmart store in Rolling Meadows, Ill., is seen from its parking lot on Nov. 5. (Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press)

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Shopping may never be the same, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The consumer behaviors that accelerated at the start of the virus — think digital ordering, bulkier baskets and no margin for error when it comes to delivery — are showing zero signs of abating eight months in. For three straight quarters now, Walmart Inc. has seen U.S. customers place fewer total orders but purchase much more when they do. Tyson Foods Inc.’s CEO on Nov. 16 highlighted “stickiness in click-and-collect and click-and-deliver,” while executives at Chinese online giant Inc. said this week the shift toward online shopping is here to stay.

“We’re convinced that most of the behavior change will persist beyond the pandemic,” Walmart CEO Doug McMillon said on an investor call after its U.S. e-commerce business jumped 79% in the latest quarter.

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The global coronavirus outbreak has upended everything from grocery shopping to restaurant takeout as shelter-in-place orders come and go in waves. In addition to the shift online, shoppers are still stocking up with bigger buys, unwilling to let their pantries go bare before another outbreak. That means large retailers who can keep key goods like paper towels, Clorox wipes and dried pasta in stock will benefit. Walmart said Nov. 17 that it’s still struggling to get enough inventory of bath tissue and cleaning supplies, and has seen customers defect to local grocers in some cases. It’s unusual for the world’s biggest retailer to see such strains in the supply chain.

“The U.S. consumer is in the middle of the largest shift in shopping behavior in the last 50 years, as convenience and safety increases in importance and e-commerce grows more rapidly than ever,” Hilding Anderson, head of retail strategy in North America at consultant Publicis Sapient, said in an email. Companies that have prioritized digital “will ultimately be the winners in this new era.”

Walmart ranks No. 3 on the Transport Topics Top 100 list of the largest private carriers in North America. Tyson ranks No. 11.

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