ATLANTA — Following a solid, or at least reasonably normal, first quarter, the Coca-Cola Co. said it has experienced a plunge in sales and is scrambling to adapt to a dramatically altered market environment. Additionally, the company is working to position itself for a post-pandemic world while acknowledging wildly different potential scenarios for how that world may look.
Since the beginning of April, the company has experienced a global volume decline of approximating 25%, nearly all of which is represented by away-from-home channels. Reacting to the sharp sales slide, Coca-Cola shares fell as much as 5% in New York Stock Exchange trading April 21, closing at $45.38. From a 52-week high above $60 in February, the company’s shares fell as much as 40% during March.
Coca-Cola said the year began with good momentum, coming on the heels of strong results in 2019 and with global volume up 3% through February (excluding China). Coming into March, the company said it was on track to achieve 2020 targets. Net income in the first quarter ended March 27 was $2.78 billion, equal to 65¢ per share on the common stock, up 65% from $1.68 billion, or 39¢ per share, a year earlier. Sales were $8.60 billion, down 1%. Comparable earnings per share were up 8%, and sales were flat.
While the largest hit has been evident since the start of the second quarter, the company said it began to see major changes in consumer buying patterns in March, most notably the drop in away-from-home channels, which account for about half of the company’s business.
“In at-home channels, the company witnessed early pantry loading in certain markets, followed by more normalized demand levels, along with a sharp increase in e-commerce,” Coca-Cola said. “Given that away-from-home channels represent approximately half of the company’s revenues, the company expects the net effect of these consumer purchase patterns to have a significant impact on second-quarter results.”
In addition to restaurants, Coca-Cola’s business with convenience stores has been sharply reduced.
“In some markets, like the US, drive-thru operations and carryout have helped offset some of the pressure, but most restaurants are operating on limited hours and are seeing overall trips decline sharply,” said James R.B. Quincey, chairman and chief executive officer, during an April 21 conference call with investment analysts.
How these shifts will translate into financial results for Coca-Cola for the rest of the second quarter and the entire year is a question too difficult to answer at present, the company said.
“It will depend heavily on the duration of social distancing and shelter-in-place mandates, as well as the substance and pace of macroeconomic recovery,” the company said. “However, the impact to the second quarter will be material.”
Striking a more hopeful tone, Coca-Cola expressed the view the pressure will prove temporary and that improvement will be evident sequentially in the second half of the year.
“The company, along with its bottling partners, is continuing to adapt quickly to the current environment, with a focus on mitigating the near-term impact while positioning for success coming out of the crisis,” the company said.
Coca-Cola highlighted a number of steps the company is taking to adapt, beginning with actions aimed at keeping its employees safe together with a commitment to donate more than $100 million on community relief programs, medical supplies and equipment during the outbreak phase of the pandemic.
Coca-Cola said it is reviewing every aspect of its business and redirecting spending to areas where it can be the most effective.”
The company is increasing investments in e-commerce to support both retailers and meal delivery services. It is shifting “toward package sizes that are fit-for-purpose for online sales and redeploying consumer and trade promotions toward digital,” the company said.
Major shifts in brand marketing and Coca-Cola’s approach to brand marketing have occurred since the outbreak, Mr. Quincey said. The changes heed the current state of the “consumer mindset across markets,” he said.
“We've determined that in this initial phase, there is limited effectiveness to broad-based brand marketing,” he said. “With this in mind, we've reduced our direct consumer communication. We'll pause sizable marketing campaigns through the early stages of the crisis and reengage when the timing is right.”
Because of the extraordinary uncertainty it faces, Coca-Cola has withdrawn second-quarter and full-year guidance. Mr. Quincey predicted guidance would be offered by the company again, beginning in July, when the company next conducts an earnings call.
Over the course of the call, Mr. Quincey described three phases anticipated from the pandemic, beginning with the outbreak period and the social distancing it necessitates; a phase of gradual reopenings, and then a final phase that will be a return to a new normal.
“We're still in the most intense first phase of the crisis in many places, if not most of the world,” he said.
Considerable attention during the call was devoted to different possibilities for how the economic recovery will take shape. Despite the uncertainty, Mr. Quincey said the company is not waiting for perfect clarity before taking action.
“We may not know the exact shape of the recovery, but we are taking action today to be prepared for the future,” he said. “For the recovery phase, RGM (revenue growth management) is key as we prepare to strike the right balance of affordability and recruitment packs in addition to premium offerings.”
While talk of reopening the economy has gained steam in recent days, social distancing to a meaningful degree will continue beyond the end of June, Mr. Quincey predicted. Such measures could even extend through December, he added.
“We just cannot know,” he said. “What we have to focus on is this alphabet soup of (recovery) scenarios, the U, the V and L, we have to be ready in case it's a V. If it does bounce back, we don't want to be so conservative we are not ready for a spring back of the economy and a spring back in demand. And we want to be ahead of the curve. I don't think the V is the most likely scenario, but we will be ready if it occurs.”
He called the U scenario more likely than a V recovery.
“We need to prepare to act on that one with a lot of the measures we took up,” he said. “Is the L possible? Yes, the L is possible, too.”
A picture, albeit an incomplete one, of what will come next may be gleaned by observing patterns in China, Mr. Quincey said.
“There are some learnings from the earlier markets like China, South Korea or even some of the European markets,” he said, adding, “We're still at the beginning. We're still at the beginning.”
The drop in business in China was even greater than what the company experienced globally in April, Mr. Quincey said.
“We were doing great (there) in January,” he said. “We had a fantastic start to the year, double-digit growth. It was a very profound lockdown in February, much deeper than the minus 25% we're currently seeing globally, and we started to build back up volatile from week-to-week in March. And we're kind of getting close toward neutral in China now, still below where we were last year and where we were in January.”
With limits on crowd sizes still in force, a full recovery will take time. He said other countries “may not follow the same trajectory” as China, and that the situation in China could still change.
He noted that Singapore and Tokyo have experienced a second phase of lockdowns.
With bottlers and representatives located at every corner of the globe, Coca-Cola is no stranger to crises, Mr. Quincey said. The company, with its long history, has endured many periods of challenge in the past, he said, adding that following “every previous crisis, military, economic or pandemic in the last 134 years, the Coke company has come out stronger.”
The key, he said, is for the company to manage through the crisis with great care while also maintaining “an eye on where is this going in the long term, such that as we work our way through the winding path of what the crisis takes us, we end up emerging stronger.”
An updating of the company’s purpose statement — “to refresh the world and make a difference” has proved timely, Mr. Quincey said.
“Our company's purpose is now more important than ever,” he said.