Robot vacuums, peanut butter fly off the shelves during pandemic

NEW YORK • Consumers sticking close to home as Covid-19 cases spike around the world are reaching for more pantry staples such as mayonnaise and peanut butter and are buying robot vacuum cleaners and computers.

As companies report quarterly earnings and look to the second half of the year, pandemic winners and losers are becoming more apparent.

Companies that sell electronics, comfort food and other products for the home continue to benefit from quarantines and lockdowns.

“Being at home – or at least out of their normal routines – the majority of the day, consumers are embracing technologies that enhance their at-home lifestyle, whether through entertainment or assistance with chores around the house,” said Mr Daniel Binder, partner at Columbus Consulting, a firm that advises on the retail sector.

Last week, electronics retailer Best Buy said its online sales jumped more than three-fold in the current quarter through July 18, while overall sales rose about 15 per cent. And Roomba robot vacuum maker iRobot flagged meaningful growth in demand for its vacuums that can cost US$800 (S$1,100).

Roombas, which can speak more than a dozen languages including Mandarin, automatically zip around carpets and floors sucking up crumbs, dirt and pet hair.

Keeping a clean home has taken on greater prominence in the pandemic, Mr Colin Angle, chief executive officer of iRobot, said in the company’s earnings release last Tuesday.

Shares of Best Buy, the Minneapolis-based retailer, rose to a record high of US$99.42 last Wednesday, after the company reported robust sales of computers, tablets and appliances to homebound consumers and students. Almost all its stores had reopened to shoppers as of last Wednesday.

“People see getting a Roomba to get their houses cleaner or upgrading to the latest iPhone as a means of getting back some sense of control in their lives,” said Mr Dave Marcotte, senior vice-president, Insights, at retail consulting and analytics company Kantar.

Britain-based home improvement retailer Kingfisher last Wednesday reported exceptionally strong demand for do-it-yourself and gardening products. Lockdowns drove a 21.6 per cent jump in second-quarter same-store sales.


JM Smucker, which makes Smucker’s jams, Jif peanut butter and pet food, raised its dividend in a time when many companies are slashing payouts to conserve cash. Last month, Smucker said it continued to expect shoppers to eat more meals at home.

Global consumer products company Unilever last Thursday noted strong sales of Breyers, Magnum and Klondike ice cream, along with Hellmann’s mayonnaise and Knorr soups.

“We see no signs of North America slowing down,” Mr Alan Jope, the company’s chief executive officer, told analysts.

A new wave of amateur bakers has led to a surge of more than 40 per cent in sales of Hershey’s chocolate chips and cocoa powder that are used in cakes, cookies and other desserts.

The chocolate maker said last Thursday it expects sales to accelerate in the coming months.

By contrast, jeans maker Levi Strauss & Co said last Tuesday its executives would continue to work with reduced salaries through the end of next month, citing the economic hit from Covid-19.

Levis, hurt by store closures, said on July 7 that sales tumbled 62 per cent in the second quarter.


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