Covid-19: ‘Restricted living’ sparks online ramen frenzy for Walmart


  • e-Commerce
  • Saturday, 04 Apr 2020

A woman buying packets of instant noodles as people panic buy groceries in a supermarket. Online sales of the pantry staple typically devoured by penny-pinching students rose 578% between Feb 23 and March 21, according to a company presentation obtained by Bloomberg News, helping to fuel a 31% increase in e-commerce revenue over the last eight weeks. — AFP

It’s a good time to be a ramen seller on Walmart Inc’s website.

Online sales of the pantry staple typically devoured by penny-pinching students rose 578% between Feb 23 and March 21, according to a company presentation obtained by Bloomberg News, helping to fuel a 31% increase in e-commerce revenue over the last eight weeks. Other categories seeing explosive growth online included shelf-stable milk, pasta, soup and canned vegetables, which all rose more than 400%.

Shoppers have also flocked to Walmart’s more than 4,700 US stores, which experienced a 17% uptick in sales over the past four weeks compared with the same period a year ago, the document said. Consumer purchasing patterns have evolved “drastically” in recent weeks, Walmart said, shifting from masks and hand sanitisers in the first wave to baby and pet products, then pantry staples, and now toys, office supplies and exercise equipment as Americans enter a period of what Walmart calls “Restricted Living”.

That period could last for some time, as more than two-thirds of shoppers surveyed by the nation’s biggest retailer said they plan to continue their cautionary behaviour “as long as it takes”. That’s put unprecedented stress on Walmart’s store network and its 1.5 million-strong workforce, prompting the company to say Friday that it will limit the number of customers in stores beginning April 4.

The stockpiling behaviour has also created massive bottlenecks in retail supply chains, as manufacturers frantically ramp up production while food wholesalers borrow trucks and drivers from companies that typically serve now-dormant sectors of the economy, like restaurants and hotels.

The sales figures contained in the Walmart report are often staggering and provide a window into how nervous Americans are coping with the prospect of being stuck indoors for a long time. The World Health Organisation on April 3 warned countries not to ease lockdown restrictions too quickly, as that could lead to a resurgence of the disease and its economic impact could be even more severe and prolonged.

Homebound consumers are shopping online, many for the first time, and jostling for precious delivery and store-pickup slots. Installations of Walmart’s online grocery app rose 164% over the last five weeks, the document said. Those web buyers are grabbing flour (up 345%), canned meat and seafood (315%) but also indulgences like premium chocolate, up 313% over the period from Feb 23 to March 21.

Walmart’s online traffic could surge even more as it imposes customer limits in its stores. The retailer said it will use separate entrances and exits and allow no more than five customers for each 1,000 square feet at a given time, which equates to roughly 20% of a store’s capacity. Once a store is full, customers will be admitted on a “one-out-one-in” basis, Walmart said. Some stores will also impose one-way aisles, to maintain social distancing.

The Wall Street Journal first reported on the Walmart documents. — Bloomberg

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