Cues on changes in consumer behavior during Covid-19 crisis from Walmart’s latest earnings report

One way to keep a pulse on consumer behavior during the crisis is to listen to companies that play a big part in consumer lives in the US. Take Walmart as an example. The firm is a household name in this country and can be found in most of its counties. This is what it commented on how consumer behaved during the crisis. It shed some light on the changes in preferred categories as the crisis went on

After supporting our associates, our next priority is serving customers. In the U.S. the first quarter started out as expected. And as the pandemic spread, we saw the mix of sales ship heavily towards food and consumables, as we’d previously experienced in China. This was the first stock update that we all saw so vividly. We experienced unprecedented demand in categories like paper goods, surface cleaners and grocery staples. For many of these items we were selling in two or three hours what we normally sell in two or three days. As the quarter progressed, we saw a second phase related to entertaining and educating at home, puzzles and video games took off. Parents became teachers. Adult bicycles started selling out as parents started to join the kids. An overlapping trend then started emerging related to DIY and home related activities. Think games, home office, exercise equipment and alike. It was also clear a lot of people were taking a do-it-yourself approach as they bought items like bandanas and sewing machines to make masks. We can see customers looking to improve their indoor and outdoor living spaces, our home categories in stores and online took off.

Towards the end of the quarter another phase emerged, COVID relief spending as it was heavily influenced by stimulus dollars leading to sales increases in categories such as apparel, televisions, video games, sporting goods and toys. Discretionary categories really popped towards the end of the quarter.

Source: Walmart’s Earnings Call Transcript
Source: Walmart
Source: Walmart

The intensified fear of the virus and the stay-at-home orders also changed shoppers’ behavior

ECommerce sales remained strong throughout the quarter while store traffic was quite variable due to the various stay in place orders and social distancing around the country. February sales were stronger than expected with comp sales of 3.8%. As the health crisis intensified in mid-March, we saw a surge in stock-up trips with March comps increasing about 15%. Store pickup and delivery spiked in March and remained elevated in April with sales growth of nearly 300% at peak.

Store sales slowed during the first half of April due to soft Easter seasonal sale and additional social distancing measures. In mid-April, sales reaccelerated across the business as government stimulus money reached consumers with general merchandise sales particularly strong. April comp sales increased 9.5%.

During the quarter, we saw customers consolidate shopping trips and purchase larger baskets in stores, which drove a ticket increase of about 16% while transactions decreased about 6%. With the shift in purchasing behavior, eCommerce sales contributed approximately 390 basis points to segment comp. Pickup and delivery services continue to run historically high volumes. 

Source: Walmart’s Earnings Call Transcript

Consumer preferences in a particular category such as food also changed due to societal impact of the virus

We have seen some inflation in categories like milk, eggs and dairy later in the quarter, and that seems to have subsided somewhat. And then protein inflation has picked up over the last few weeks, as plants have been inoperable in certain parts of the country. And as those have gotten back to limited operating capacities, we will continue to moderate that.

Source: Walmart’s Earnings Call Transcript

It’s quite interesting that more folks 50 years and older shopped online during the crisis than before

we have seen an increase in not only new buyers, but also repeat rates across the board, both for pickup delivery from the store and delivery out of the FC (Fulfillment Centers).

we have seen higher growth rates, most customers who are 50 years of age or older than what we had seen in previous quarters. Other than that it’s been across the Board, the repeat rates have been higher

Source: Walmart’s Earnings Call Transcript

The value of increased switching costs via a membership

Another interesting point is how memberships play a role in consumer behavior. As we know, everyone can shop at Walmart, but only paid members can at Sam’s Club.

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Comparable sales refers to the comparison of sales at the same stores during the same period compared to sales last year. It’s important to exclude fuel due to fluctuating fuel prices.

As you can see, comp in-store transactions at Walmart, which is almost limitlessly accessible, went down because of the stay-in-home order, social distancing and other options including but not limited to Whole Foods, Target. However, comp average ticket at Walmart went up due to consumers stocking up and panic purchase.

On the other hand, at Sam’s Club, where access is more limited due to mandatory paid memberships, both in-store trans and average ticket increased. Average ticket rose by only 0.1%; which I guess is due to the fact that shoppers did more trips to the stores and didn’t buy in bulk as much as Walmart’s clientele. Shoppers shopped more because they already bought the paid memberships which increased what we call in business terms as “switching costs”. What happened this last quarter with Sam’s Club is what executives hope to achieve when launching a rewards program: increased stickiness.

Weekly readings – 15th June 2019

iOS 13 now shows a map of where apps have been tracking you when requesting permission. Your location at any given time is sensitive information. This feature will allow you to protect your privacy from apps

They See It. They Like It. They Want It. They Rent It. An important shift in consumer behavior.

A mentalist’s guide to being happy

Internet Trends 2019. The annual highly anticipated report by Mary Meeker is here.

Shopify unveils first State of Commerce Report

The I in We How did WeWork’s Adam Neumann turn office space with “community” into a $47 billion company? Not by sharing. Personally, I am not a fan of the hype given to WeWork despite all the glaring issues the company has shown so far. Read the article and see if you are still comfortable with your own evaluation of WeWork

Maine Governor Signs Strictest Internet Protections in the U.S. I am in favor of this bill. Internet is now an indispensable part of our life and so is our privacy. Why do Internet service providers whose services we PAY have the rights to our data without our consent?

The New York Times has a course to teach its reporters data skills, and now they’ve open-sourced it. Kudos to the Times for investing in its reporters and props to them again for open-sourcing the materials.

Sinemia and MoviePass

If you live in the US and are a fan of watching movies at cinemas, chances are that you have heard of a company called MoviePass. It is famous for its unprecedented business – $10/month for one ticket every day. The company has suffered a great deal financially and operationally for its business model, including an urgent financing round to keep its servers running, downtimes, unimpressive customer services and frequent changes to its pricing.

In the subscription world, the mandate is that once a user subscribes, the more the subscriber consumes services/content, the better and marginal cost is trivial. Take Netflix for example. After a successful subscription, a user can watch as many movies and for as many times as possible. Netflix takes in minimal marginal costs (probably for servers, storage and networking) for every time a movie is watched. In the case of MoviePass, it’s not the case. Every time a ticket is dispensed, MoviePass pays the cinemas either the full amount of the ticket or the majority of it. Slap on it the cost of marketing, financing and operations and the business loses money.

How does MoviePass make money in that case? I suspect that MoviePass prioritizes growing its user base to the point that it is big enough for the company to convince cinemas to cut its a much better deal. Advertising can be another avenue.

The failure of MoviePass is also from the customer segmentation perspective. We moviegoers differ from one another in our consumer behavior. Some go to cinemas every week, some go for only blockbusters and some only do so once in a while. The difference in behavior requires multiple offerings from MoviePass. The less frequent users don’t feel motivated to keep a subscription every month. Movie junkies who go as many times as possible will bleed the company dry. There are some users who look at the release schedule, subscribe for only one month in which I can watch movies I like and then unsubscribe, myself included. Such users don’t offer much value to MoviePass as they don’t, ironically, consume enough to contribute to MoviePass’s value as a company.

The “one-size-fits-all” model that MoviePass is famous for doesn’t take into account any user behavior. Unsurprisingly, it failed.

Sinemia today announced an unlimited plan. For $30 bucks, users can get a ticket every day and advanced bookings are allowed (not possible with MoviePass). The difference obviously is a higher price tag that comes with the plan. I suspect that even at $30/month, it is still a money-losing deal for Sinemia but it is less damaging than a $10/month plan. Moreover, Sinemia has 5 different plans now. Each appeals to a different segment of users.

Sinemia

To discourage users from unsubscribing early, Sinemia enforces an initiation fee for monthly-based plans. That way, users care more about the subscription and are motivated to stay longer. If users unsubscribe, Sinemia gets more revenue in return. If users want to avoid the initiation fees, the only way is to be locked in for a yearly bill.

Even though Sinemia has multiple plans and higher pricing points, Sinemia will try to enlarge its user base and leverage it for a better deal with cinemas. What I think will be appealing to cinemas is that Sinemia can prove that it attracts moviegoers in unpopular times during a day. Movie slots are perishable. Once it goes by, there is no way to recover it. Hence, cinemas would be interested in putting butts on their seats during low-traffic hours. If Sinemia can prove that it is able to deliver that, its position will be stronger. Anyway, its business model is saner than MoviePass’.