“It’s been nuts,” Costco CFO Richard A. Galanti said on a Thursday earnings call with investors.
While the spread of the novel coronavirus has been disastrous for many sectors of the economy, it’s been good news for the big-box wholesale club known for its supersize packaging. On Thursday, Costco told investors that February sales were up 12 percent from the previous year and “benefited from an uptick in consumer demand in the fourth week of the reporting period,” when fears grew about outbreaks of covid-19 in the United States.
“We attribute this to concerns over the coronavirus,” the company said.
Stock prices for Walmart and Target have also benefited from the spread of the deadly virus, as people preparing for a quarantine situation load up shopping carts with bottled water, canned soup, instant mac and cheese and everything else that they could possibly need to wait out the virus. But the panic-buying has been leading to shortages and leaving people on edge.
On Thursday morning, San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department deputies showed up at a Costco in Chino Hills, Calif., after receiving reports of a disturbance. According to NBC Los Angeles, the officers were told that customers had become unruly when they learned that water, toilet paper and paper towels were out of stock.
While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have said that there’s no need for Americans who are in good health to stockpile supplies, some state health departments have contradicted that advice. In the meantime, shoppers are piling their carts with cases of canned beans and peanut butter, and Costco stores are selling out of toilet paper.
“These last nine or so days has been beyond busy,” Galanti said during Thursday’s earnings call, noting that shelf-stable groceries, bleach, paper goods, and even water filtration and food storage systems have been in high demand, and hand sanitizers and cleaning supplies have been hard to keep in stock. In some instances, stores have instituted limits on how many items individual shoppers can purchase.
“We’re getting deliveries daily, but it’s still not enough given the increased levels of demands on certain key items,” Galanti said. “It’s been a little crazy this past week in terms of outside shopping frequency and sales levels, and not only in the United States.”
Companies like Clorox and Campbell’s Soup have also reported seeing an increase in demand, and supermarket chain Kroger said Thursday that consumers are stocking up on pre-made meals. Galanti noted that Costco’s “huge pickup in traffic” in recent days may reflect the fact that people are choosing to eat out less often, in addition to stockpiling food in their basements.
The urge to stock up on rice, beans, bread and other staples has even inspired its own Twitter hashtag, #CostcoPanicBuying. Approximately 200 people lined up outside a Honolulu Costco on Saturday, while shoppers at a Seattle store reported wait times of more than an hour at checkout.
And the demand hasn’t slowed down since then. One Los Angeles-area woman said that upward of 800 people had been waiting to enter Costco when she arrived on Thursday morning, while a video taken at a Costco in Van Nuys, Calif., showed a checkout line that snaked around the aisles of the store, with dozens more shoppers waiting to get in.
“It’s busier than Christmas,” one store manager told the Orange County Register.