While Most Ohio Businesses Struggled During COVID, A Few Saw Profits Boom
Columbus resident Michael Paull used to grocery shop online sparingly. But when the pandemic first hit in March, he switched over full-time.
"We're still doing it here a year later," says Paull, 41. "Haven't been inside a Kroger or a Target, except to pick up things that have been ordered online."
Paull misses going to the grocery store, but won’t go back anytime soon.
"I think at this point, we'll keep it up until we're vaccinated, and hopefully the numbers have gone down a lot more," Paull says.
While many Ohio companies have suffered – or closed entirely – because of the pandemic and related shutdowns, others were well-positioned to thrive. Supermarkets like Kroger and businesses that make sanitary products have boomed, while consumer habits are changing for the long haul.
Fewer Customers, Larger Purchases
Kroger, which is based in Cincinnati, continues to make business decisions in response to customers like Paull: of the 7,000 people it hired last year, about half were hired to work the online grocery service Kroger Pickup.
Corporate affairs manager Amy McCormick says the company experienced 92% of its sales growth in the first quarter of 2020, through the pandemic-induced switch to online shopping – even though supermarkets like Kroger were never closed by Ohio's public health orders.
People also changed up the products they were purchasing.
"Customers started cooking at home more. And cooking as families," McCormick says. "We saw customers opting for comfort foods over healthy options, those tried-and-true favorites like frozen meals and cookies."
As the pandemic continued on, most customers at Kroger started shopping both online and in-store, and McCormick says that's increased sales.
"When customers engage with us both in our physical stores and our digital channels, they visit us more frequently on average," McCormick says. "And on average, they spend twice as much as those who shop only with us in-store."
Kroger plans to continue investing heavily in its digital services. Its fourth quarter earnings were released last week – digital sales grew 118% from the quarter before.
Smaller groceries like Weiland's Market in Clintonville do not offer an in-house online option or delivery service. But owner Jennifer Williams says they still saw a big uptick in sales when the pandemic began.
"It was literally like the holiday week of Christmas only for months on end," Williams remembers.
Williams cut daily hours of operation to aid her employees' mental health, but sales still boomed. They open an hour later and close an hour earlier than they did pre-pandemic.
"It's frankly all a blur of what happened when. It's just been a blur," Williams says. "We were all exhausted because business went up probably 100% with people coming in to buy liquor, meat, wine and beer."
Even now, sales are about 40% higher than 2019.
Both Kroger and Weiland's Market say there's less foot traffic in stores, but the customers showing up are making larger purchases than they did pre-pandemic.
Not Just Grocery Stores
Groceries aren't the only sector expecting their increased business to stay. Glenn Avenue Soap Company in Grandview almost doubled its revenue last year, despite losing its direct sales to the restaurants, bars and gyms that closed down.
"My wholesale business, selling through Whole Foods Market or to The Hills Market downtown, or the Bexley Natural Market, that business went up," says Phil Metzler, co-founder of Glenn Avenue Soap Company. "And our web sales went up."
His largest client was the Greater Columbus Convention Center, which used his soap year-round at 365 of its sinks.
"Normally, they would buy about 30 or 40 gallons of soap per month. Well, in early March, just before the Arnold Sports Festival, we delivered a whole pallet of soap, 140 gallons of soap to them in anticipation of hundreds of thousands of people coming to town," Metzler explains. "And five days later they cancelled it."
The convention center hasn't ordered since, Metzler notes with a laugh.
Metzler says Glenn Avenue Soap Company partnered with a local brewery to create hand sanitizer, selling about 3,000 bottles in 2020.
"And we're so appreciative because many people told us, 'Hey, I'm intentionally shopping local,'" Metzler says. "'I'm intentionally supporting stores and crafts people in my community'"
Even with all the online success, Metzler looks forward to a return to normal shopping as more people get vaccinated. He plans to re-open his brick-and-mortar location on Friday, March 12.
What questions do you have about COVID-19 or Ohio's response? Ask below and WOSU may answer as part of our series A Year Of COVID.