The last several weeks have been all hands on deck for every player in retail, as the race for the consumer’s whole paycheck has shifted tracks rapidly in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Which has meant the two main competitors in that race, Walmart and Amazon, have had to shift along with it — bulking-up some areas, slimming down others and attempting to keep the consumer experience as normal as possible in deeply abnormal times.
How are things going? Well, as is the case with most things we report on these days, it’s more a work in progress than anything as both retailers are working to separate out what goods count as “essential,” finding the best ways to get them into customers’ hands and figuring out how to manage a world that switched from multichannel to digital in only a matter of weeks.
Big News of the Week: The Extending Grocery Waiting List
Amazon’s ongoing problem since the coronavirus pandemic began has been delivery times — both from its core eCommerce site and its grocery locations. eCommerce customers are finding delivery times on “non-essential” items stretched out to weeks or even over a month in some cases, while grocery shoppers are finding it increasingly difficult to grab an available spot for Prime delivery.
And, as recent reports indicate, that waiting list is getting longer, not shorter as new grocery delivery customers will be sent directly to a waitlist according to a blog post released over the weekend. The same post also noted that some Whole Foods stores will see their hours shortened to allow for additional restocking and cleaning time. Other stores will work exclusively on fulfilling online grocery orders as the coronavirus pandemic accelerates demand beyond capacity.
Amazon has reportedly upped its online grocery capacity by more than 60 percent since the start of COVID-19 outbreak — but shopper demand for digital delivery of grocery items continues to outstrip the number of timeslots available. The number of Whole Foods stores offering pickup expanded from 80 locations to over 150 in the last several weeks.
Amazon said it is working on the problem and believes it will be able to report additional progress soon, as its operations better optimize to meet demands.
“In the coming weeks, we will launch a new feature that will allow customers to secure time to shop. This feature will give delivery customers a virtual place in line and will allow us to distribute the delivery windows on a first-come, first-served basis. Simultaneously, we will continue to add capacity as swiftly as possible,” Stephenie Landry, vice president of Grocery at Amazon, said in the blog post.
But to add that capacity, Amazon will need more workers …
Expansion of the Week: Adding Another 75K Workers
Between the avalanche of eCommerce and grocery orders, Amazon has been adding to its employee roster to keep operations moving and packages shipping out. Earlier in the pandemic the firm announced it would be hiring an additional 100,000 workers to meet the demand surge.
As of last week, Amazon announced it will be hiring an additional 75,000 workers on top of that 100,000 as the demand continues to skyrocket. Those new employees will be eligible for the temporary $2 an hour pay bump.
The announcement of the continued staff-up in the face of the pandemic also noted that currently employees are “working at sites across the U.S.” to keep goods moving and that its new investment in personnel would be accompanied by increased investments in worker safety. Amazon also said it is welcoming those whose paychecks have perhaps been evaporated by the current crisis.
“Many people have been economically impacted as jobs in areas like hospitality, restaurants and travel are lost or furloughed as part of this crisis — and we welcome anyone out of work to join us at Amazon until things return to normal and their past employer is able to bring them back,” Amazon wrote in its blog post.
And speaking of returns to normal …
Signs of Progress: The Return of the Non-Essential
A little over a month ago Amazon rocked its seller community with the announcement that it would be limiting shipments unrelated to wellness, cleaning and non-perishable home essentials in order to make way for the essential consumer goods customers were seeking. This week, however, Amazon began with some baby steps back to normalcy — with an announcement that it will now allow third-party sellers to resume delivery of other products.
“Later this week, we will allow more products into our fulfillment centers,” an Amazon spokeswoman told The Wall Street Journal. “Products will be limited by quantity to enable us to continue prioritizing products and protecting employees, while also ensuring most selling partners can ship goods into our facilities.”
Limits will still be in place to ensure adequate space in the warehouse for essential goods, but the roughly 58 percent of Amazon’s sales that come from third-party sellers of non-health and wellness products will at least get some chance to come in from the cold — and back into consumers’ regular orbit.
And Amazon wasn’t the only race participant this week weighing the essential against the merely desirable — or thinking outside the box to strike the balance.
Big Story of the Week: Riding The eCommerce Wave
It has been a wild and difficult ride for Walmart over the last several weeks — though one that recent data indicates might have a small silver lining. A new survey has found that Walmart Inc. saw its year-over-year online grocery sales explode last month to reach nearly $900 million, nearly twice the amount seen in March of 2019.
CSA analysts also reported that Walmart’s March sales were up 21 percent from February 2020 — a phenomenon attributed to consumers crashing into stock-up mode to prepare for COVID-19. The top selling items were (predictably) hand sanitizer, which saw a 307 percent rise in sales; alcohol, which surged 143 percent; toilet paper, up 133 percent; and cough and cold remedies, which were up 116 percent.
According to Walmart CEO Dough McMillon, Walmart solid enough toilet paper last week alone to give every single American a single roll to call their own. And while supply can absolutely meet demand, he said, the retailer does request that people overcome their instincts to hoard.
“We’re working to put it on the shelf, but as soon as we do it’s gone,” he said in an interview with the Today Show, noting that if people could limit themselves to purchasing for the week ahead instead of for the next several months, that would be tremendously helpful to everyone.
And while the coronavirus pandemic has been stressful, it has also been a major boost to Walmart’s sales, as customers aren’t just shopping more, they are also spending more. Walmart shoppers spent an average of $127 per order in March. That’s up from $113, or 11 percent more than usual, according to the CSA report.
Backlash of the Week: Defining an Essential Item
What is an essential item? It is a question Walmart has been working hard to answer all week, as it responds to a series of state and local bans on the sale of non-essential items from retail locations. Michigan’s ban, for example, says stores more than 50,000 square feet must close areas dedicated to carpeting, flooring, furniture, garden centers, plant nurseries and paint.
But workers in a Walmart in Michigan, experiencing some confusion with the order, also roped off the parts of the store selling baby goods — diapers, formula, car seats —that one might argue are clearly pretty essential.
"I went to buy [a car seat] and the cashier told me legally she is not allowed to let me leave the store with it because it was in a taped off area," Michigan’s Kerri Dennis told Business Insider.
Walmart later clarified that despite the local issue, consumers could in fact by baby goods in its Michigan stores, and in the rest of the U.S.
“Michigan customers are able to purchase baby car seats, baby furniture and other infant products at their local Walmart,” a Walmart spokesperson said in a statement. “We are reiterating this direction with store management to ensure consistent service to our customers across our Michigan stores. Customers are also welcome to purchase these items from the convenience of their home through Walmart.com.”
Walmart.com, like most eCommerce sites, is not subject to bans on the sale of non-essential items, though many eCommerce merchants have made internal decisions to restrict and limit some sales to create greater capacity for necessary goods.
Because, as the week’s news indicates, creating capacity is the new name of the game in the race for the consumer’s whole paycheck — as Amazon, Walmart and all other participants are writing the new rules of retail in real time for tens of millions of concerned consumers whose shopping channels have all gone digital in less than 30 days.
To say both have reached the hurdles section of the track would be an understatement.
But the race carries on and is even advancing, albeit differently than we might have forecast at the outset of the year. Which means the only thing to do now is watch — and see which path it runs down next.