May 19, 2020 12:00 PM, EDT

Walmart Sales Soar on Consumer Stockpiling, Online Shift

A worker delivers groceries to a customer's vehicle outside a Walmart store in New York on May 15.A worker delivers groceries to a customer's vehicle outside a Walmart store in New York on May 15. (Angus Mordant/Bloomberg News)

[Ensure you have all the info you need in these unprecedented times. Subscribe now.]

Walmart Inc. jumped May 19 after reporting coronavirus-related stockpiling led to a surge in quarterly sales, underscoring the company’s strong position amid widespread carnage in the U.S. retail sector.

Comparable store sales, a key retail metric, increased 10% for U.S. Walmart stores in the period, compared with the 8.6% estimate compiled by Consensus Metrix. That’s the fastest pace of growth in almost two decades. Profit in the quarter also beat expectations.

Walmart’s results reinforce how Americans’ spending priorities rapidly shifted to staples and away from discretionary items with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, before pivoting back to items like office equipment, sporting goods and toys as the quarter wore on. The report for the three-month period ended April 30 sparked stock advances from peers such as Target Corp. and Costco Wholesale Corp.

COVID-19 stockpiling had an immediate effect on Walmart's results.

Walmart Chief Financial Officer Brett Biggs said the quarter was a roller-coaster ride that started strong in February before a flurry of stockpiling in mid-March. Growth slowed in early April but then re-accelerated after government stimulus checks arrived.

“It really was unprecedented,” Biggs said in an interview. “It was several quarters within a quarter.”

The shares rose as much as 3.4% to $131.99 on May 19. The stock had gained 7.4% this year before May 19, compared to a drop of 8.6% for the S&P 500 Index.

Walmart’s move to build up its e-commerce capacity paid off, with online sales in the U.S. rising 74% in the quarter. That outpaces the average analyst estimate of 51%. To counter rival’s popular Prime service, the company is rolling out a subscription-based grocery delivery offering and recently introduced a two-hour home delivery service in some markets.

The online pickup and delivery business increased fourfold at times during the March peak period, Biggs said, bringing in many new customers. This included older Americans who may not have shopped much online before.

Profitability Concern

Despite the dramatic sales growth, there’s concern that higher sales of everyday items like food and toilet paper, instead of higher-margin discretionary items, will reduce margins. Fulfillment costs also erode the profitability of online orders.

Walmart said gross profit margins narrowed due to a shift to lower-margin categories and web sales along with markdowns and other investments to lower prices. But the e-commerce business still lost less money than it did in the year-ago quarter.

“The results were clearly positive, particularly on the profitability side,” said John Tomlinson, an analyst at M Science. “There were not too many holes to pick in the quarter. The question is, where do we go from here after the initial stock-up activity?”

Investors will be tuning in closely to see whether the boom in spending will hold up or lose steam. Walmart said there’s “significant uncertainty” surrounding the length and intensity of the coronavirus’ impact, prompting the retailer to withdraw its full-year guidance, which was given just three months ago.

Still, the company said its “business fundamentals are strong.” Walmart incurred incremental costs of nearly $900 million related to its response to COVID-19.

It listed the measures it has put in place to help protect shoppers and consumers, from reduced hours and enhanced cleaning procedures to Plexiglas sneeze guards and face masks and gloves for employees.

The safety of Walmart’s massive U.S. workforce is also under scrutiny amid reports that some employees have died from COVID-19. That workforce is growing, with the company hiring 235,000 new employees during the period.

Walmart also said it will shutter the online business, which it acquired four years ago — an unsurprising move as Walmart has been integrating Jet into its broader web unit over the past year.

Walmart ranks No. 4 on the Transport Topics Top 100 list of the largest private carriers in North America.

Want more news? Listen to today's daily briefing: