Walmart sees stockpiling again as Covid cases rise—but this time it's localized

  • Walmart CEO Doug McMillon said the retailer is seeing some customers load up on items like paper goods, cleaning supplies and dry food again in some parts of the country.
  • "It really does have everything to do with what's happening with Covid cases in any particular community," McMillon said on an earnings call. "I was in stores last week, and I saw variance from one state to the other, one location to the other — just depends on how people are feeling in that moment."
  • The seven-day average of daily new Covid infections in the U.S. surpassed 150,000 for the first time on Monday, according to a CNBC analysis of Johns Hopkins University data.

Walmart CEO Doug McMillion said Tuesday that customers are loading up on items like toilet paper again as coronavirus cases rise — but he said the retail giant is better prepared to keep up.

"It feels to me like we'll work through this period of time better than we did in the first wave," he told investors on an earnings call. He said the company's supply chain is "still stressed in some places" with out of stocks.

Coronavirus cases and hospitalizations have shot up across the U.S. The seven-day average of daily new Covid infections in the U.S. surpassed 150,000 for the first time on Monday, according to a CNBC analysis of Johns Hopkins University data. It marked the 10th day in a row of an at least 30% increase in that seven-day trend.

In some parts of the country, the outbreaks have gotten especially severe and prompted new government restrictions or curfews. In El Paso, Texas, hospitals have run out of beds for sick patients, freezer trucks have become temporary mortuaries and doctors have been forced to make tough calls about who receives care. Other cities and states are looking to reimpose restrictions on gatherings and activities such as indoor dining to prevent the virus' spread.

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With the latest surge, retailers have adjusted their policies. On Saturday, Walmart resumed counting the number of customers in stores to make sure they had more room to socially distance. Some grocers, including Kroger, Wegmans and Publix, have reinstated purchasing limits on toilet paper, disinfecting spray and hand sanitizer.

"The recent rise in Covid cases throughout the country reminds us we must remain vigilant," McMillon said. "As we've done since the beginning of the outbreak, we'll continue being disciplined about the safety protocols throughout our stores, clubs, distribution, and fulfillment centers."

He said the pantry-loading varies widely in different states and regions, depending on the number of cases, local restrictions and consumers' mindset.

"It really does have everything to do with what's happening with Covid cases in any particular community," he said. "I was in stores last week, and I saw variance from one state to the other, one location to the other — just depends on how people are feeling in that moment."

This time around, retailers face an additional hurdle. They must keep shelves stocked, stores cleaned and customers spread apart during the all-important holiday shopping season.

McMillon said he anticipates customers will still fill up their grocery carts or virtual baskets with festive foods to eat and gifts to exchange — and said its sales patterns will likely reflect that in the winter months.

"People are at home more," he said. "They're eating at home more, and they've all been through a difficult year. So just emotionally, I don't know what you're thinking, but in my family — while it will be a smaller group — we're really looking forward to Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Year's and some sense of joy and normalcy."  

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