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5 Brick and Mortar Retailers Who Thrived in 2020

Here’s How a Handful of Retailers Managed to Survive and Expand, Despite the COVID-19 Crisis

  • By Sarah Murphy

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, many businesses have had to shutter their doors, lay off staff, or pivot to survive. But the unpredictable nature of the pandemic has also meant surprising success for many brick and mortar retailers.

Consumer demands and shopping habits changed as the world switched to remote work, physical distancing, and staying home. As a result, some stores didn’t just weather the storm, but have come out of it with increased sales and plans to open new locations.

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to thriving during a pandemic, but here’s how five retailers found success over the past year.

 

BJ’s Wholesale Club

Membership-only wholesale supplier BJ’s Wholesale Club managed to increase its member base to over six million during the pandemic, with their digital sales skyrocketing more than 300% due to curbside pickup options.

Revenue rose 18% year-over-year to an impressive $3.95 billion USD, and the company went ahead with plans for two club locations in New York. It also plans to open six new stores in 2021. 

In an interview with NRF, Executive Chairman Chris Baldwin described the company’s main challenge throughout the pandemic as changing the “hero culture” among staff. 

“In a hurricane, we stay open longer,” he said. “We don’t close until we absolutely have to.”

Now, the company is promoting a culture that values associates’ wellbeing by encouraging them to stay home if they feel unwell and prioritizing their safety by implementing PPE for staff, plexiglass installations, increased sanitization, social distancing, limited capacity in-store, and temperature checks.

Clearly, it’s a strategy that’s working well for BJ’s Wholesale Club.

 

Old Navy

Gap Inc. has had ups and downs throughout the pandemic. Following temporary store closures due to local restrictions, the company decided to permanently close 225 Gap and Banana Republic stores. 

But despite recent closures, two of Gap Inc.’s other brands—Old Navy and Athleta—are continuing to open new locations, in part because of the cultural shift towards working from home (i.e., less corporate attire), an increased emphasis on fitness, and households spending less money.

All Gap Inc. brands implemented temporary closures and safety measures at the height of the pandemic in the spring, but Old Navy was the brand that exceeded expectations. 

Old Navy stores became distribution hubs and performed well with ship-from-store and curbside pickup sales. Just before the pandemic, foot traffic at Old Navy had been on the rise, as well.

“We continue to use this crisis as an opportunity at every turn,” CEO Sonia Syngal said in a statement detailing the company’s reopening plans. “As we leverage our stores as distribution hubs, lean into the meaningful acceleration of our online business and play forward the learnings from our Asia business where all locations are now open, we believe we’ll be well-positioned as this crisis subsides.”

Plus, they got RuPaul for their holiday commercial campaign.

 

Five Below

Tween-targeted discount store Five Below complied with lockdown orders and shut their stores throughout March and April, and made some difficult decisions to preserve their business. In-store employees were furloughed, but their health benefits were covered throughout the shutdown, while salaried corporate employees took a temporary pay cut to reduce the financial impact on the company.

Once parts of the U.S. lifted restrictions, Five Below stores across the United States finally reopened. Since then, consumers have continued to flock to the store to pick up pandemic-specific products like hand sanitizer, wipes, and masks, as well as stay-at-home products like kitchen and bath products, clothing, toys and games, and pet stuff.

The combination of obeying restrictions, implementing safety measures, and selling in-demand products seems to have been a winning formula for Five Below. Despite the pandemic, Five Below managed to increase revenue by 6% for the year and plans to finish opening between 110 and 120 new locations by the end of 2020.

 

Lidl

Though it originated in Germany, grocery chain Lidl is also looking to expand in the U.S. in the face of COVID-19. It only entered the States two years ago and is looking to increase its roughly 100 stores to 150 by the end of 2021. It even topped the NRF’s 2020 list of Hot 100 Retailers with a sales growth of 69%.

Of course, being allowed to function as an essential business helped Lidl stay profitable, but it’s also worth noting that they didn’t skimp on any safety measures during the pandemic. 

In addition to temperature checks for employees, masks and gloves for employees, limiting store capacity, posting social distancing signage, providing health benefits for all full-time and part-time workers, enhanced cleaning practices, and installing plastic shields at checkout, the chain also installed hospital-grade air filters in all of their stores to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The company will continue to expand in the new year, primarily in New Jersey and Maryland, investing approximately $500 million USD into the new stores.

 

Tractor Supply

Rather than adapting frantically to an unexpected pandemic, Tractor Supply already had much of the infrastructure in place to thrive during a period that no one could have predicted.

The rural-focused outdoor life retailer has had a strong buy online pick up in store (BOPIS) system in place for years, so filling an increase in digital orders was less daunting than it was for many other companies.

CEO Hal Lawton also credits the unusual circumstances to some of their success, noting that many people started fleeing large cities for the suburbs and rural areas during COVID-19. “They’re embracing the ‘out here’ lifestyle, and they’re shopping Tractor Supply because we are that lifestyle,” he told CNBC

With that boost, the retailer’s net sales for the quarter that ended on June 27 were up 35% to $3.18 billion, while e-commerce sales more than doubled. Tractor Supply opened 18 stores in the second quarter of this year, and they are continuing with plans to open another 75-80 locations before the end of the year.

On top of that, they were transparent about COVID-19 cases amongst staff, reporting just 50 positive-testing employees (as of September). And rather than punishing staff for missing work, Tractor Supply gifted sick associates with COVID care packages that included PPE, therapeutic products (like cough lozenges), and gift cards for at-home entertainment (like Netflix)—suggesting that taking care of your employees does, in fact, pay off.

 

For more success stories, check out our case studies and learn tips from top CEOs on surviving the COVID-19 crisis over on our Resources page.

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