Americans are embracing the trappings of a rural lifestyle during the coronavirus pandemic, according to the chief executive of farming goods chain Tractor Supply, which has reported a spike in sales as thousands of families take on gardening, soil tilling and chicken breeding for the first time.
Driven by fears over food security due to the disruptions in the global supply chain, as well as a desire to be healthy during the coronavirus lockdowns, consumers are spending more dollars on farming goods, Hal Lawton told the Financial Times.
“Americans are embracing much more of a backyard mentality right now as they’re quarantined and living with their family,” said Mr Lawton, who recently took over at the helm of the Brentwood, Tennessee-headquartered company, which generates about $9bn in revenue from sales of everything from barn jackets to animal feed.
As the global healthcare crisis was picking up in March, customers rushed to Tractor Supply’s more than 1,800 stores across the US to stock up on food for their large animals and pets, said Mr Lawton. Now they are buying products that will help them take their minds off the crisis.
“Families want to do things together, and getting out in the yard and planning a garden, tilling the soil, creating the bed, and then planting the garden, and then ultimately harvesting it — we see a lot of those projects happening right now,” said Mr Lawton.
The other big trend is raising chicks of all breeds: from Dixie Rainbows, which are high producers of large brown eggs, to Belgian Bearded D’Uccle, which make small cream-coloured ones, or the more picturesque Sultans with feathered feet.
“If you go into our stores right now, you’ll see the family in there, maybe a mum and a couple of kids and the dad, and they’re picking out a handful of chickens,” says Mr Lawton.
“They’re buying a chicken coop, chicken feed and all the other accessories that go along with it. And then they’re going back to their house and they’re standing up a chicken coop. And a little bit of it is the eggs every day and the novelty of that. But a lot of it is just doing something together.”
The renewed interest in rural life has helped boost overall sales at the store, which has been deemed an essential business by the government and allowed to stay open during the coronavirus pandemic. Tractor Supply’s revenue for the first quarter ending March 31 was up 7.7 per cent to $1.96bn compared to the same period a year ago — extending a trend of growing sales even while other brick-and-mortar retailers have struggled with falling sales and market share.
Mr Lawton is trying to hire 5,000 people to help manage the spike in sales and meet the changing needs of customers at a time of social distancing and extreme attention to hygiene.
“We’ve been rapidly evolving our business and our offerings to reflect those needs,” said Mr Lawton. “Given the need for safety, combined with the additional convenience, kerbside pick-up represents 75 per cent of our buy-online, pick-up in-store orders. But also just basic things like we’ve got more inventory coming in the back of the store that has to get out to the shelf than normal because our sales are up.”
These changes, both in customers’ taste as well as delivery of the products they buy, is here to stay, said Mr Lawton.
“Until there’s a vaccine or widespread therapeutic that is able to work well and significantly reduce the mortality rate, we’re going to be in this new normal . . . I think we’ve created a new paradigm now, and we’ve all got to learn to operate within that.”