July 27, 2020
By Kane Webb, Walmart Corporate Affairs
Not long before the COVID-19 pandemic led to lockdowns across the United States, William Roberts, manager of Walmart store 2125 in Lakewood, Colorado, near Denver, received a large supply of Lysol. “It was gone in two days,” Roberts said. “It was immediate. It was weird.”
For store associates such as Roberts, the impact was sudden, like flipping a switch. So was the change in shopping habits, as people scrambled to adapt quickly, instinctively and largely without precedent to lean on.
In response to this new normal, the phases of customer behavior could be categorized this way: preparing for the pandemic, adjusting to the 24/7 nature of life and work at home and keeping the family entertained. Other factors have affected behavior, such as getting a stimulus check or just plain boredom, and many of us have shifted heavily to shopping online, some for the first time.
Of course, customer behavior is human behavior. Creatures of habit, what becomes of us when habits are forced to stop, or change, at a moment’s notice? When our daily routines go out the window – or, rather, stay inside the house?
To judge by data trends during the pandemic, we develop new routines, and quickly. To begin with, we follow the herd. A rush on toilet paper, hand sanitizer, cleaning products and other “hunker down” items seems practical enough for a population at first unsure how long they’ll be at home and how long supplies might last. The volume raises eyebrows.
In the initial weeks of the lockdown, Walmart was selling enough rolls of toilet paper every five days for the entire U.S. population to get one roll each. At one point, comp sales for hand sanitizers had increased by more than 650 percent. “I still cannot seem to buy enough of them,” said Latriece Watkins, executive vice president of consumables. “We were selling in a day what we normally sell in a week. Same with wipes.” Early on, Watkins had seen high demand for over-the-counter flu medicines, vitamins and masks.
“My theory,” said Charles Redfield, executive vice president of food for Walmart U.S., “is that whenever there’s a period of uncertainty, and people don’t know what to do, we’re going to see unusual buying behavior. Toilet paper. We were selling water like crazy. These were things there weren’t shortages of. But people pay attention to what’s said on TV, and they watch other people’s behavior.”
A customer who sees a depleted aisle of paper products on the news may feel a need to stock up, too.
Roberts, the store manager in Colorado, said the unexpected and suddenly relentless demand on certain items, especially early on, required some creative thinking.
“Toilet paper takes up a lot of space even though there may not be a lot of quantity,” he said. “Customers see a whole aisle gone, and it reinforces their fears. So, we tried to be innovative. We moved RV toilet paper to the aisle, flushable wipes over to the aisle. We wanted to give customers some options.
“When hand sanitizers ran low, we put aloe vera gel next to bottles of alcohol to make your own hand sanitizer. It’s easy to think about the stuff that’s running out, like hand soap, but you’ve got to think a layer deeper. Do we have enough hand lotion for people who are washing their hands more and drying out their hands?
“We do a lot of observing and a lot of touring of the store. Just because we were out of things doesn’t mean we don’t have an obligation to serve the community.”
As Redfield, who’s spent 30 years in retail and seen his share of business disruptions, points out, “The great thing about Walmart associates is they just figure it out. They figure out what needs to be done.
“One of the things I’ve told my leadership team is that sometimes getting out of the way and letting people figure it out is the best leadership you can provide.”
Deanah Baker is a senior vice president for apparel and a Walmart associate of 30 years come September. “On March 13, we went home to work, and it was a shock to the system,” she said. Apparel sales dropped as customers stocked up on food and essentials. Having followed customer buying trends and behaviors in China as it first dealt with the virus provided Baker and her team with a data point, but this was still new territory. “Everyone rallied,” she said. “We had to understand it...Every day for 30 minutes, we huddle via Zoom and go through the business at hand, how’s the team doing. We’ve learned how to have walkthroughs and supplier road shows virtually. If we need to touch or feel something, swatches are sent to people’s homes.
“Every day we get a little smarter. Every day is a fact-finding mission.”
As the initial panic and confusion of the lockdown subsided, Americans adjusted and then re-adjusted. They had to work at home, teach the kids at home, cook at home, entertain at home.
Customers looked to extend the shelf life of food. We bought canned goods and frozen foods, like pizza and vegetables. We baked! Yeast became one of the highest volume growth items in grocery.
Walmart’s Great Value five-pound bag of flour sold nine weeks of supply in five weeks. Weekly sales of cake mix doubled. The media outlet Marker reports that sales for King Arthur Flour, founded in 1790 and one of the oldest manufacturers in the country, increased 600 percent “almost literally overnight,” and thousands of baking questions flooded the company’s headquarters.
A report from retail analyst NPD Group, focusing on the first five weeks of the lockdown, showed that U.S. dollar sales of pasta makers grew five times over last year, and bread-makers more than quadrupled sales.
Some products have reversed trend – like cereals (breakfast at home) and peanut butter (lunch); oranges for Vitamin C; and spices for cooking, not just eating, at home.
Given the carb-loading, and with gyms closed for weeks, it was no surprise that sales of exercise equipment and comfort clothes spiked. Over the first month of the pandemic, Walmart customers bought 24 million pounds of weight plates, dumbbells and kettlebells. That’s more than the weight of the Eiffel Tower.
Online, there was a sharp increase in searches for sweatpants. Alas, not so much for workout tops. Sleepwear and licensed T-shirts? Popular. Dress shirts? Um, not so much.
“Comfort does rule right now,” Baker said. “We all joke about putting on day-time pajamas and night-time pajamas. Sometimes on our daily calls, we’ll joke, ‘do you have shoes on?’”
As the weather warmed, customers picked up new hobbies, or returned to older ones, like riding bicycles, fishing and camping out, if only in their own backyards.
Arts, crafts and paint kits have proven popular too. As are supplies for home-improvement projects and gardening. Nationally, sales of seeds are running two to three times higher than before the pandemic.
Could “do-it-yourself” and “get outside” be the new vegging out in front of the TV?
Calley Williams of Fayetteville, Arkansas, might qualify as a prototypical customer these days. In her late 20s, Calley is a hairstylist who found herself at home during the lockdown’s first month. Her husband Sammy, in his 30s, is in the National Guard and works in technology. He continued to leave home for work throughout the pandemic. They have a 6-year-old daughter, Ollie.
Before the world turned upside down in mid-March, the Williamses juggled work, parenting and daily living with the typical home-and-away schedule of a 21st century American family. Once that dynamic shifted, so did their needs, especially when it came to Ollie.
“We had all the electronics that we needed, but we quickly realized that [stimulating] her little brain was going to take more,” Calley said. “So, we stocked up on puzzles. We stocked up on tons of Legos. We bought art supplies like canvases and paints.”
Home-schooling required pencils and sharpeners and flash cards. They bought a work desk for Ollie so she could have her own space. Artwork consumed the dining-room table.
And, they went outside, purchasing toys for Ollie and plants for mom to transform a largely forgotten space. “We usually never had time to sit outside,” Calley said. “I work 50 hours a week. I’d come home, and it’d be late at night. Now my back patio is complete. A lot of outdoor things to warm up our back porch. So that part has been enjoyable.”
Another change: The Williamses have gone from shopping at Walmart 2-3 times a week to one big shopping trip every two weeks, and they’re shopping largely just at Walmart.
“I didn’t realize how much time I wasted going to more than one store,” said Calley. “Like, I used to go for a specific creamer at another place. Well, Walmart carries it. So, I can just get it all in one place.”
And all at one time, which has become another typical customer behavior. We’re shopping less but filling up more.
“Traffic decline, but much bigger baskets,” Redfield said.
Finally, we humans can be full of surprises, sometimes even surprising ourselves. Besides our renewed tastes for bread-baking and pasta-making, board games and puzzles, we’ve rediscovered the ancient game of chess. The Wall Street Journal reports that the online site Chess.com hosted more than 279 million games in April, an average of 9.3 million games a day and an increase of almost 40 percent over pre-lockdown February.
Another throwback comeback, with a contemporary twist: sports trading cards. YouTube and Twitter livestreams of people opening sports cards is attracting millions of viewers, and the Topps baseball card website crashed one day from too much traffic in anticipation of a newly released set of cards.
Videos of “Rubik’s Cube racing” have proven popular on Twitch. And nostalgia combined with sports deprivation to result in an average of 5.6 million viewers tuning in for five consecutive Sundays and 10 episodes of “The Last Dance” on ESPN – a documentary about an NBA team from 22 years ago.
Meanwhile, offline, there were countless stories of six-foot-rule driveway gatherings between family and friends and neighbors and the glories of “free play” for kids no longer locked into rigid youth-sport schedules. A walk around the block often felt like a journey back in time. Why, hello neighbor!
The other afternoon, a man was taking his daily lunchtime constitutional when he heard a sound that seemed to come from another era.
“Th-h-h-WOP!” … silence … “Th-h-h-WOP!”
It was a steady cadence of horsehide pounding into leather. Every few seconds. “Th-h-h-WOP!” He turned a corner to see a father and son playing catch, an ideal social-distancing game. Despite the delay of Major League Baseball, it remained, as ever, baseball season. Kid had a good arm, too.
Here’s a trend for you: a better understanding of the basic human need for connection, empathy and togetherness.
William Roberts has seen it first-hand at his store. “The reason why we’re as successful as we are is that we’ve always put a focus on our people, and our people are going through some stuff right now. Everyone is going to remember this for the rest of their lives. They’re going to remember how we treated each other.”