So far in 2021, U.S. online grocery sales have been variable but remained well above those in March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic started taking hold, survey data and financial reports from publicly traded grocery retailers show.
The big picture on grocery
In April 2021, Americans spent $8.4 billion in online groceries, up 29.2% compared with $6.5 billion in April 2020, according to survey data from online grocery consultant Brick Meets Click (BMC) and grocery ecommerce platform Mercatus USA Inc. This includes groceries ordered for local pickup or delivery in April, which totaled $6.6 billion, up 65% from $4.0 billion a year earlier, and groceries shipped via common carriers like United Parcel Service or the United States Postal Service, which total $1.8 billion in April 2021, a slight decrease from $1.9 billion in April 2020.
Despite the dramatic year-over-year increase in April, sales growth has been inconsistent on a month-by-month basis. For example, total U.S. online grocery sales in March totaled $9.3 billion. That matched the pandemic-era record set in January and was 16.3% higher than the $8.0 billion in sales in February.
The April 2021 survey was part of an ongoing independent research project created and conducted by BMC and sponsored by Mercatus. BMC surveyed 1,941 U.S. adults, 18 years and older, who participated in the household’s grocery shopping from April 26-28. BMC compared the most recent results to previous BMC/Mercatus surveys fielded using a similar methodology.
Below are recently released details about online sales at three major grocery retailers:
Netherlands-based grocery retailer Ahold Delhaize (No. 4 in the Digital Commerce 360 Europe 500) reported its online sales in the U.S. grew 188.3% in constant currency during its fiscal 2021 first quarter. That sales gain was driven partly by the retailer’s acquisition of online grocer FreshDirect, completed in January. As part of the acquisition deal, private equity firm Centerbridge Partners bought a 20% stake in FreshDirect. Under its new ownership, FreshDirect will retain its brand name and continue to operate from its facility in New York City independently.
Excluding the FreshDirect acquisition, its U.S. online sales grew 135.2% for the quarter compared with the year-ago period. In Q4 2020, U.S. online sales increased 128.5% year over year.
Ahold Delhaize’s U.S. comparable sales excluding gasoline grew 1.7% year over year in Q1 2021. The retailer says demand related to COVID-19, particularly in January and February, helped drive that increase, along with calendar shifts and a weather impact. The underlying operating margin in the U.S. was 4.8% for the quarter, down 1.8 percentage points from the prior year at constant exchange rates, the retailer reported. The decrease in the Q1 operating margin was due to unusually high margins in Q1 2020 due to the demand created by the COVID-19 pandemic. Margins in 2020 also benefited from the timing of unexpectedly higher sales, which preceded the timing of significant costs related to COVID-19.
Albertsons Cos. Inc.
Grocery chain operator Albertsons (No. 27 in the 2021 Digital Commerce 360 Top 1000) reported its digital sales soared 282% in its fiscal Q4 2020, which ended Feb. 21, compared with the same quarter a year earlier. For the full year, digital sales grew 258% compared with FY 2019, the company reported. Albertsons does not break out dollar amounts for its online sales, but the gains came during a quarter and year when overall (online and offline) sales also grew, but by far less dramatic percentages.
Albertsons reported total revenue of $15.77 billion for the quarter, up 2.1% from $15.44 billion during the year-ago period. Revenue was $69.69 billion for the year, up 11.6% compared with $62.46 billion in FY 2019. Comparable sales grew 11.8% year over year for the quarter and 16.9% for the year.
For Q4, Albertsons reported a net loss of $144.2 million, compared to a net income of $67.8 million during the fourth quarter of fiscal 2019. The Q4 2020 loss during the fourth quarter of fiscal 2020 included the $449.4 million charge, net of tax, related to pension plan obligations. Adjusted net income for Q4 was $347.2 million, up 79.0% compared with $194.2 million during the fourth quarter of fiscal 2019.
For the year, net income was $850.2 million, up 82.3% compared to $466.4 million or $0.80 per share during fiscal 2019. Adjusted net income was $1.89 billion for fiscal 2020, up 209% compared to $612.1 million in fiscal 2019.
For FY 2021, Albertsons says it expects identical sales growth of 6.0% to 7.5%. It did not project digital sales growth.
Walmart—a mass merchant and the nation’s biggest grocer—reported its U.S. ecommerce sales rose 37.0% in fiscal year 2022’s first quarter, which ended April 30, reaching $17.2 billion. For the comparable quarter a year earlier, consolidated ecommerce net sales were $12.2 billion. The retail giant does not break out online grocery sales. But in Walmart’s FY 2021, which ended Jan. 31, its total grocery sales were $208.41 billion, representing 56.3% of its $369.96 billion in total sales.
Walmart also touted the grocery category as a key driver of its ecommerce sales. And its commitment to selling groceries online for pickup or delivery is deep. Walmart added 1,400 delivery locations between January 2020 and January 2021, according to company reports.
In Q1, Walmart reported revenue of $138.31 billion, up 2.7% compared with the $134.62 for the comparable quarter in FY 2021. Net income declined to $2.73 billion, down 31.6% from $3.99 billion a year earlier. But operating income rose to $6.91 billion, up 32.3% compared with $5.22 billion in Q1 of FY 2021. The year-ago quarter included the first wave of pandemic-related stockpiling during the early weeks of the COVID-19 crisis.
Walmart (No. 3 in the Top 1000) attributed its good financial performance to turning around market-share losses in its grocery unit, U.S. stimulus checks and pent-up demand after a year affected by lockdowns.
In a May 18 conference call with analysts, Walmart CEO Doug McMillon called grocery supercenter pickup and delivery the “number one driver of selling memberships” in its Walmart+ paid membership program.
Percentage changes may not align exactly with dollar figures due to rounding.