It can be difficult these days to cope with the uncertainty and distressing developments that pervade virtually every news story related to COVID-19. In a time of crisis such as this, a common reaction is to seek control and security wherever it can be found. And while not even public officials can control this virus’s spread, one thing individuals can control (to a degree) is their level of preparedness. For many, the quintessential barometers of preparedness are the pantry and the freezer. The fuller they are, the better people feel. Still for others, as this crisis has taught us, the quintessential barometer of preparedness is toilet paper.
According to Nielsen data, Americans spent more than $1.4 billion on toilet paper from February 28 to March 21. This compares to roughly $9 billion that consumers spend on toilet paper in a normal year and equates to around 2.5x the typical daily spend. However, those figures understate the actual underlying demand, as much of the country began experiencing stock-outs and per-purchase limits on toilet paper in the middle of March.
It is easy to label people’s “stockpiling” of toilet paper as irrational. For one, there have been many symptoms attributed to COVID-19, but gastrointestinal issues aren’t among the common ones. Further, certain consumers have been buying more than they need, likely spurred in part by panicked reports of toilet paper shortages. However, there are good reasons for the toilet paper shortage as well. First, aside from how bulky it can be, toilet paper is the ideal kind of product for stockpiling: it is a cheap, nonperishable item that will eventually get used one way or another.
But there is another reason for the toilet paper shortage that is overlooked by explanations that blame the consumer. Yes, people’s need for toilet paper, even in a world with COVID-19 is, pardon the pun, regular. But the stay-at-home orders that the vast majority of the country finds itself under are anything but. And now, for most people, virtually all of the bathroom visits that would have occurred at school, work, while out, etc. are now happening at home. So yes, true demand for consumer toilet paper at home is up significantly, and the real stockpiles of toilet paper are those rolls that are sitting unused in janitor’s closets across the country. There aren’t many good ways to redistribute commercial toilet paper to consumers, but some is available online, and some small restaurants have resorted to attracting takeout customers by throwing a roll of toilet paper in with every order.
If this lasts long enough, the toilet paper supply chain will eventually adjust, but it will not be easy. Toilet paper is a low-margin item that is produced with extremely high efficiency in plants that already run 24/7 in normal conditions. There isn’t a lever to pull to instantly get more volume.
Americans themselves are still adjusting to the new normal as well, and as consumers change their behaviors, supply chains for other products will be thrown off kilter. For example, baking is now a hotly trending pastime as it is family-friendly, quarantine-friendly, and (again) comforting. Consequently, Nielsen data reports that there has been a surge in yeast demand; sales in the first week of April were reportedly 303% higher than the same week last year, and yeast had the most week-over-week growth of any category tracked.
Of course, all of this is merely a curious inconvenience compared to the much more consequential and painful problem of the virus itself. Stay safe out there and stay home, everyone. And let’s try to be thankful for the comforts we still have, even if it’s commercial grade one-ply. If you’re quarantined with a loved one, go give them a hug. Just wash your hands first.
Headlines of the Week
U.S. consumer activity took a massive blow in March due to the rapidly spreading and deadly coronavirus outbreak. According to the U.S. Commerce Department, retail sales during the month nosedived, reflecting the devastating impact of social distancing and job losses. Headline retail sales plunged a record 8.7% during March, which was worse than the 8% decline expected by economists. Core retail sales, excluding the volatile auto and gas components, fell 3.1%, better than the 5.2% estimated decline. Retail sales dipped 0.4% and core retail sales sank 0.2% in February.
Apparel & Footwear
The coronavirus outbreak delivered a record blow to the nation’s retail sales in March. Retail sales saw their biggest monthly drop on record during March as restaurants, bars and many stores temporarily closed across the nation, reported the National Retail Federation (NRF). Among retail sectors, apparel stores had the biggest decline, with sales down 50.5% from February. In contrast, sales rose 25.6% at grocery stores and were up at other retailers deemed “essential” as well, offsetting some of the decline. “COVID-19 has hit the retail industry unevenly,” NRF chief economist Jack Kleinhenz said. “This is a market of haves and have-nots. The haves are the stores that remain open with lines out the doors to buy daily necessities while the have-nots are the stores that have closed and are taking the brunt of the impact of the pandemic.”
Designer jeans company True Religion has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection for the second time in three years, citing difficulties due to the coronavirus pandemic. In a bankruptcy filing last week, the company said that business has been hurt by the COVID-19 pandemic and prolonged closure of brick-and-mortar stores across the nation. It said this has “accelerated” the liquidity constraints it already faced. “While the debtors would have preferred to wait-out the current instabilities of the financial markets and retail industry generally, they simply could not afford to do so,” according to court documents. The company said that bankruptcy was the only way to maximize value for shareholders and stay in business once stay-at-home orders are lifted and non-essential retailers can reopen. The company had already furloughed all non-essential employees, according to court documents. This is the second time that True Religion has landed in bankruptcy. It last exited from bankruptcy in 2017 in just four months, after shedding over $350 million in debt, closing stores and investing in e-commerce.
Designer Brands Inc., parent of DSW Designer Shoe Warehouse and other banners, has an unlikely partner. Designer Brands is teaming up with grocery chain Hy-Vee, which operates over 265 stores across eight Midwestern states, in a multi-stage pilot that starts with making DSW product available on Hy-Vee’s website. DSW and Hy-Vee are also developing buy-online-and-pick-up in-store capabilities which will roll out in several DSW in-store shops in Hy-Vee locations “over time.” In addition, and prior to the rollout of the shop-in-shop locations, the companies will launch a pilot of top-selling family footwear displayed in a pallet format in more than 120 Hy-Vee stores. The partnership was announced as Designer Brands’ nearly 1,000 locations remain closed indefinitely due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Renowned shirtmaker TM Lewin is in talks with potential buyers as coronavirus continues to cause chaos across the UK high street. Sky News reports how interested parties are being asked to make an offer on the 122-year-old London-based business this week. TM Lewin was first founded in 1898 by Thomas Mayes Lewin, who opened his first shop on London’s Panton Street. Today, TM Lewin trades from 66 stores in the UK, as well as five in Australia, and is majority owned by private equity group Bain Capital. The coronavirus epidemic is continuing to wreak havoc across the UK high street, with retail sales recording their worst decline on record. Sales decreased by 4.3 per cent in March, according to the latest figures from the British Retail Consortium (BRC) – the worst drop since records began in 1995.
Gordon Brothers, the global advisory, restructuring, and investment firm, announced that it has successfully sold Bench, the iconic British streetwear brand to Wraith, an affiliate of Apparel Brands Limited for all territories outside of the Americas. Apparel Brands Limited is currently one of Bench’s primary European licensees. Gordon Brothers acquired the Bench brand and all its related intellectual property assets in July 2018. The focus was put on restructuring the business into a more asset light – intellectual property-centric business model. As a result of these efforts Gordon Brothers secured several new partners in categories as diverse as casualwear, handbags, gym equipment, and workwear. As the business developed, it became apparent that Apparel Brands Limited was the natural owner of the brand and ideally positioned to continue its growth.
Athletic & Sporting Goods
Nike has retained its spot as the world’s most valuable apparel brand but the brand value of the sector could fall by 20% due to the coronavirus pandemic, according to a global report. The U.S. sportswear giant’s brand value jumped 7% to $34.8 billion as of Jan.1, the Brand Finance Apparel 50 index found. Sporting goods rival Adidas stayed in third place as its brand value dropped 1% to $16.5 billion, behind Gucci in second, which rose 20% to $17.6 billion.
Under Armour Inc. has named the former CEO of women’s jeans brand NYDJ to fill its open chief product officer position. Lisa Collier will start on April 27 and report directly to Under Armour CEO Patrik Frisk. She will work with Kevin Eskridge, Baltimore-based Under Armour’s outgoing chief product officer, during a transition period until he leaves in August. In joining the sportswear maker’s C-suite, Collier brings more than 30 years of experience in brand leadership, product development, supply chain and merchandising to the table.
Cosmetics & Pharmacy
Maybelline make-up manufacturer L’Oreal on Thursday posted a 5% fall in comparable first-quarter revenue, after lockdowns in China and elsewhere to fight the coronavirus pandemic hit demand and sparked store closures. The French firm — the world’s biggest cosmetics company, which is also home to brands like Lancome — said sales in the January to March period stood at €7.2 billion (about $7.8 billion), down 4.3 percent on a reported basis from a quarter earlier. That marked a 4.8 percent drop like-for-like, which strips out the effects of acquisitions and currency swings, and broadly in line with L’Oreal’s latest guidance. The company said online sales had surged in the first quarter, while demand in China had begun to pick up again as coronavirus restrictions there are eased.
The Chinese DTC brand Perfect Diary received a $100 million capital infusion valuing the business at $2 billion, according to Chinese tech media company 36Kr. Founded in 2017, Perfect Diary is often referred to as “the Glossier of China.” The brand has targeted millennials and Gen Z primarily online with accessible price points and targeted social media marketing partnering with hundreds of KOLs. The brand opened its first physical retail store in Shenzhen in January 2019, and by the end of the year had 40 stores in 20 Chinese cities with plans of opening 600 stores in three years mostly located in second- and third-tier cities. Jing Daily predicts the capital will be used to fund a strategic plan to open more brick-and-mortar stores in China. The lead investor of this latest round is New York-based Tiger Global Management, who also invested in Glossier last year, followed by Hopu Investment and Boyu Capital.
The British beauty retailer has shuttered its doors just two years after entering the Chinese market. Since January of 2018, SpaceNK opened a total of eight stores in tier-one cities like Shanghai, Beijing, Chongqing, and Chengdu. The company confirmed reports that it had closed retail doors and let the staff go. “Over the past two years, we have invested in a multichannel approach to retailing in China. As we constantly evaluate how best to serve and engage with our customers, the uncertain outlook ahead has underlined the importance of acting decisively,” Andy Lightfoot, Chief Executive Officer of SpaceNK told WWD.
Following the subscription box trend set in motion by Birchbox and Ipsy, Sephora launched its own version in 2015 called PLAY! This week the retailer announced via their website that the final PLAY! subscription box will be shipped in April. “After years of helping you discover new brands and try the buzziest products, PLAY! is ending to make room for something even better. Over the past six months, we’ve been behind the scenes making plans for an exciting new release that we can’t wait to show you. Thank you for letting us into your lives (and your mailbox). We hope you found some new favorite products and learned a few tips and tricks along the way. Goodbyes are never easy, but we promise you’ll love what we have in store for you next,” Sephora announced on its website before teasing a new sampling service. PLAY! will be replaced by an expanded offering of the Sephora Favorites kit program, which the retailer emphasized “is not a subscription box.”
Discounters & Department Stores
Walmart has designated 7 to 8 a.m. daily as a grocery pickup hour for customers 60 and over, first responders, those with disabilities and other high-risk shoppers, the company announced in a press release. Customers who meet the requirements for the pickup time can select the “at risk only” slot when they are placing their order online or in the Walmart Grocery app. Pickup associates are using enhanced distancing and sanitation procedures, and all Walmart pickup points will be contact-free, the retailer said.
J.C. Penney missed an interest payment on its senior notes that was due Wednesday, the retailer said in a securities filing. The company said it “elected” not to make the roughly $12 million payment, which puts Penney into a 30-day grace period. It did so, “in order to evaluate certain strategic alternatives, none of which have been implemented at this time,” Penney said in the filing. Reuters reported earlier this week that Penney was considering a possible bankruptcy filing as it tries to manage its hefty debt load amid temporary store closures and the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic and economic fallout.
Neiman failed to make a payment on a group of bonds this week, according to hedge fund Marble Ridge Capital, which is one of the department store chain’s debtholders and has sued Neiman previously. In a public letter, Marble Ridge’s Daniel Kamensky said that Neiman was now in default on its debt obligations and his fund would “take all necessary actions to protect its rights, including its right to seek all remedies, all of which are expressly preserved.” A Neiman spokesperson would not comment on the letter or Neiman’s payment status. The retailer is reportedly exploring a possible bankruptcy as the COVID-19 pandemic, which prompted Neiman to temporarily close its stores, adds new pressures on its massive debt load.
Stein Mart’s deal to be acquired by private equity firm Kingswood Capital Management has been canceled by mutual agreement, the discount retailer announced Thursday. Stein Mart directors voted to terminate the merger agreement, which the company inked in late January. The committee did so in response to “the unpredictable economic conditions resulting from the global health crisis caused by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, uncertainty regarding Stein Mart’s ability to satisfy the conditions to closing, and the substantial expense to Stein Mart of soliciting shareholder approval for a transaction which is unlikely to close,” the company said in a press release.
Emerging Consumer Companies
United By Blue, the sustainable outdoor apparel and accessories brand focused on ocean conservation, has spearheaded I Stand With Small, a coalition of mission-focused brands to support each other through cross-marketing. In addition to United By Blue, the group includes brands like Sunski, cleancult, and Ivory Ella.
The RealReal, the San Francisco-based online consignment company featuring apparel and accessories, joined a growing number of consumer brands that have reduced personnel in the wake of the coronavirus. It announced layoffs affecting 10% of its workforce and furloughs impacting 15% of employees. Those furloughed include employees in The RealReal’s e-commerce centers, retail stores, luxury consignment offices, sales organization and headquarters. The company has also instituted a hiring freeze and reduced the salaries of executives.
Allbirds, the San Francisco-based sustainable footwear brand, announced that it has become the first fashion brand to label every item produced with its carbon footprint. From now on, everything that the brand makes will include a number representing the CO2 emitted to create it. While the carbon footprint of an average plastic bag is around 1.6 kg, a pair of jeans is around 29.6 kg, and bicycles are around 240 kg., the average for Allbirds footwear 7.6 kg. The initiative follows the brand’s Carbon Fund, which was introduced last year.
Plant-based burger brand Impossible Foods announced last week that it would be in nearly 1,000 new grocery stores, including all Albertsons, Vons, Pavilions and Gelson’s Markets in Southern California, all Safeway stores in Northern California and Nevada, and all Wegmans stores on the East Coast and Fairway markets in and around New York. The company’s 12-ounce packages are sold for somewhere between $8.99 and $9.99 and it plans to soon introduce the Impossible Burger at even more stores nationwide.
Grocery & Restaurants
Amazon is putting new online grocery customers on a waitlist amid rising demand for its grocery pickup and delivery services due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The retailer announced it will ask new Amazon Fresh and Whole Foods Market delivery and pickup customers to sign up for a waitlist if they’re interested in either service, with some number of waitlisted customers invited to shop every week as Amazon increases its capacity for these online orders. The company also said it will adjust store hours for some of its Whole Foods locations in order to focus its staff’s attention online on fulfilling online grocery orders during this time.
FoodFirst Global Restaurants, the parent company of Brio Tuscan Grille and Bravo Cucina Italiana, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and is looking for a buyer. The Orlando-based casual dining company had been struggling for months prior to the coronavirus outbreak. Steve Layt came on board as CEO in late January to fix the brands. According to the bankruptcy filing and Layt, the pandemic escalated the company’s already precarious position. The bankruptcy filing comes two years after Bravo Brio Restaurant Group Inc. went private in a May 2018 deal valued at $100 million.
Home & Road
Conn’s posted a steep drop in fiscal fourth quarter net income and a 7% decline in retail revenues as deflation in big-screen TVs, a worsening consumer credit picture and other factors weighed on results. The company also announced steps it is taking to counter the coronavirus pandemic, including executive pay cuts, a streamlined expansion plan and increased borrowing to beef up its cash position. Net income for the period ended Jan. 31 was $5.1 million, or 17 cents per share, down from $29.5 million, or 91cents per share, for the same period a year ago. Adjusted earnings decreased to $5.9 million, or 20 cents per share, from $31 million, or 96 cents per share. Retail revenues were $315.3 million for the quarter, down 7% from $338.9 million during the fourth quarter last year, and same-store sales were off 13.3%. Conn’s attributed the same-store-sales decline to “a combination of significant price deflation for premium large screen televisions and an increase in production by second- and third-tier manufacturers, which has made cash purchases of large screen televisions more accessible to our core customer.”
Hooker Furniture Corp. reported consolidated net sales of $610.8 million for its fiscal year ended Feb. 2, a decrease of 10.6% from $683.5 million for the prior year. Net income for the year totaled $17.1 million, down 57.2% from net income of $39.9 million the prior year.
For the fourth quarter, the company reported consolidated net sales of $164.9 million, down 17.7% from sales of $200.5 million in the prior year fourth quarter. Net income totaled $7 million, down 52% from reported net income of $14.7 million in the prior year quarter. The company said that its fourth quarter sales decrease was impacted by a $47.2 million drop in net sales in its Home Meridian segment.
Furniture and home furnishings store sales fell off a cliff in March, dropping nearly 25% in the wake of mass store closures related to the coronavirus pandemic. The home furnishings sector posed $7.34 billion in sales for the month, down 24.6% from $9.74 billion for the same month last year, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce report. Sales were off 26.8% from a preliminary estimate of $10.03 billion in February, the latter figure was revised up from the previously reported $9.95 billion. Sales for nearly all sectors reported by the government fell significantly year-over-year and month-over-month. The furniture stores sales decline was near the bottom of the pack, and much larger than the combined decrease for all U.S. retail and food services industries — which was off 6.2% from March a year ago to $483.1 billion and down 8.1% from February.
Jewelry & Luxury
On Tuesday, Rolex, Patek Philippe, Chanel, Chopard, and Rolex sister brand Tudor announced they are leaving Baselworld to create a new watch trade show in conjunction with the Swiss trade group the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie (FHH). Rolex took the lead in organizing the new show, which will be held in early April 2021 at Palexpo in Geneva, at the same time as Watches & Wonders, the rebranded SIHH fair. The statement announcing the show did not specify dates for the new show or even a name.
The pandemic, by definition, is a global affair, and one British family’s response to it recently gave millions (including me) a bit of a reprieve from the weight of it all, plus a realization that we really and truly are all in this together. And that’s why I wanted to cover a silent online auction held by London-based jeweler Theo Fennell in support of the Kensington & Chelsea Foundation’s COVID-19 Appeal featuring five one-of-a-kind jewels. The organization will receive 15% of the highest bid fetched by each piece. Winning bidders will also receive the original artwork of each piece, signed and bound.
A flagship Hermes International store in Guangzhou reportedly took in $2.7 million on its first day reopening after the coronavirus lockdown, the biggest daily haul for a boutique in China, according to fashion trade bible WWD. The French luxury brand best known for its Kelly and Birkin bags may not be alone in enjoying the phenomenon that has been referred to as “revenge spending.”
Pure Grown Diamonds, IIa Technologies, and Fenix are asking a New York court to dismiss patent claims brought against them by WD Lab Grown Diamonds and the Carnegie Institution of Washington. In January, WD and Carnegie filed patent-infringement lawsuits against three sets of lab-grown diamond companies: Pure Grown Diamonds and IIa Technologies; Fenix and Mahendra Brothers; and ALTR and R.A. Riam Group. The suits alleged that that the companies infringed on two Carnegie Institution patents, which M7D has licensed since 2011.
Office & Leisure
Sports betting giant DraftKings has been cleared to become a public company following approval of a merger with SBTech and Diamond Eagle Acquisition, the public acquisition vehicle headed by industry veterans Harry Sloan and Jeff Sagansky. Diamond Eagle Acquisition Corp., led by Sloan, announced Wednesday that it had received the approval from the Securities and Exchange Commission and is now moving to the final step in the process. An April 23 meeting has been scheduled for DEAC shareholders to vote on the business combination with DraftKings and SBTech. The deal is valued at $2.7 billion. Diamond Eagle will combine with DraftKings and SBTech to create what’s described as the only vertically integrated U.S. sports betting and online gaming company. Upon conclusion of the deal, the new DraftKings will become a publicly traded company under the new symbol of “DKNG” and become incorporated in Nevada. The new company will have more than $500 million of unrestricted cash to ensure access to capital to fuel growth.
Hotels across the U.S. and the world are struggling amid the coronavirus pandemic. Many have temporarily shuttered and more are on the way. Some may never reopen at all. “I don’t think the (hospitality) industry itself has yet come to terms with the full scope of every piece of minutiae that needs to be reimagined,” Steve Carvell, professor of finance in the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business, told USA TODAY. Still, the industry is accommodating guests, aiding essential workers and homeless in local communities and adjusting offerings where it can — all in an effort to adjust to a new normal as the travel industry spirals and fights for government aid to overcome the crisis. Hotel occupancy in the U.S. the week of April 5 to 11 was down nearly 70% year-over-year, at 21%, according to STR data.
Mighty Jaxx, which makes licensed collectibles, has raised 4.5 million Singapore dollars (about $3.2 million) in funding for MightyVerse, its platform for tech-enabled figures. Led by the investment arm of KB Financial Group, one of South Korea’s largest banks, the round also included participation from Greycroft Partners’ gaming fund GC VR Gaming Tracker Fund and returning investor SG Innovate. This brings Mighty Jaxx’s total pre-Series A funding to about $4.7 million, with part of the new capital also earmarked to develop products from its new licensing deals with Hasbro and Nickelodeon. Founded in 2012, Mighty Jaxx’s other licensing deals including partnerships with Cartoon Network, Warner Brothers, DC Comics, Looney Tunes and Sesame Street. It raised its first round of funding last July to develop MightyVerse.
Technology & Internet
Amazon will soon allow third-party merchants to ship nonessential items to its warehouses, the company confirmed to CNBC. Starting later this week, the company will begin to accept more products in its warehouses, an Amazon spokesperson said in a statement. Amazon told sellers in March that it would “temporarily prioritize” household staples, medical supplies and other essential product categories in response to a surge in demand from the coronavirus outbreak. The spokesperson said products will be limited by quantity to allow Amazon to continue prioritizing essential products and protecting employees, “while also ensuring most selling partners can ship goods into our facilities.”
Best Buy will furlough about 51,000 employees, the company said in a news release. The retailer’s stores have been closed across the country since March 22, but it has continued to pay its employees and offer curbside pickup. It also suspended all in-home delivery, installation and repairs. Starting Sunday, Best Buy said it will furlough nearly all of its part-time store employees and some of its full-time store employees in the U.S. About 82% of its full-time store employees will continue to be paid. Best Buy’s top executives, including its CEO, will take pay cuts. CEO Corie Barry will receive half her salary, and company executives who report directly to Barry will take a 20% pay cut to their base salary through at least September 1. The company’s board of directors will be paid half of their cash retainer fees during the same period.
Half a year after Devin Wenig stepped down as CEO, eBay is finally ready to name a permanent replacement. Following an appointment from the company’s board of directors, Jamie Iannone will step into the role as head of the company, effective April 27. The executive was also elected to eBay’s board. Most recently, Iannone served as the COO of Walmart’s eCommerce division, having only been appointed the give a few months prior. Previously, he held a number of high profile executive gigs under the Walmart umbrella, including serving as the CEO of SamsClub.com. Other jobs include a four year stint at Barnes & Noble’s digital division (including Nook) and eight years as at eBay.
Covid-19 has transformed the world, killing nearly 100,000 people across the globe so far and sending the US economy into a tailspin. Along with the restaurant and travel sectors in the US, the retail industry has been hit especially hard. But not every retailer is suffering. For Walmart and Amazon, which already dominated a significant percentage of brick-and-mortar retail and online commerce in the US, respectively, the pandemic has provided an exponential boost to their already substantial businesses and power. Before the pandemic, the US e-commerce industry only represented between 10 percent and 15 percent of overall retail. Now, that percentage seems likely to grow, setting up Amazon to have a bigger advantage over most other retailers, including Walmart. With millions of Americans ordered to remain home, Amazon is now, more than ever, a lifeline for essentials for millions of people rather than just a convenient option for online shopping.
Finance & Economy
It took only four weeks for the U.S. economy to wipe out nearly all the job gains in the last 11 years. The coronavirus and the forced closure of business throughout the country again fueled the number of Americans applying for state unemployment benefits, which last week totaled 5.245 million, the Labor Department reported. Combined with the three prior jobless claims reports, the number of Americans who have filed for unemployment over the previous four weeks is 22.025 million. That number is just below the 22.442 million jobs added to nonfarm payrolls since November 2009, when the U.S. economy began to add jobs back to the economy after the Great Recession.