How Tractor Supply Co is using tech to deliver e-commerce to its rural customers and fuel a sales surge

June 4, 2020, 2:00 PM UTC

Tractor Supply Co might be a retailer selling things like livestock feed, lawnmowers, chicken coops, and pet food to recreational farmers and ranchers in rural markets, but it has emerged as one of the most deft brick-and-mortar retailers using technology and e-commerce during the current pandemic.

That prowess has led Tractor Supply, No. 380 on the Fortune 500 with 2019 sales of $8.35 billion, to be one of the big retail winners from the COVID-19 outbreak.

Last week, the company said it expects sales in the quarter ending late this month to be up between 24% and 29%. While being deemed essential during the lockdowns was an advantage, Tractor Supply has helped itself by going all in on tech, building on some already solid foundations.

While the company already offered in-store pickup for online orders, in just a matter of days at the start of the pandemic, it launched curbside pickup, a contactless option for customers that has also been implemented by stores like Best Buy and PetSmart. Tractor Supply is also relaunching its website to improve both pickup options. Early in the COVID-19 crisis, it quickly gave employees better mobile devices that let them bust checkout lines by ringing up customers from anywhere in the store, a great option at a time when people don’t like lingering.

And under the leadership of its CEO since January, Hal Lawton, who had previously been the president of Macy’s after stints at eBay and Home Depot, Tractor Supply is about to launch its first mobile shopping app.

“We believe the strong will get strong during this period of time, and we’re committed to capitalizing on the opportunities that this crisis presents,” Lawton said on an investor call on Wednesday.

While some people might mistakenly believe think rural and exurban shoppers are less focused on fast e-commerce delivery than urban customers, Tractor Supply has made that a priority. Prior to the pandemic, Tractor Supply, which also operates PetSense, the third largest pet store chain, offered same-day delivery from 20% of its stores. Working with delivery service Roadie, the company ramped that up to the rest of its store fleet within three weeks, allowing Tractor Supply to compete effectively with Amazon and Chewy, not to mention Home Depot and Lowe’s.

Tractor Supply, founded in 1938 in Minot, North Dakota and now based near Nashville, has been handsomely rewarded by Wall Street for its strong performance. Shares are up 92% since U.S. lockdowns started in mid-March and are near all-time highs, giving it a market capitalization of $14 billion.

The company, whose namesake chain has 1,800 stores, also benefits from having a lot of choice, but not endless varieties within its product categories. That includes nearly 15,000 items, a fraction of what big box stores like Home Depot and Walmart offer. And Tractor Supply stores are typically about 15,000 square feet in size, comparable to a CVS or a Walgreens. That means they are easy to navigate for a quick in-and-out trip, something customers prize right now.

“It’s not intimidating like the other big boxes out there are,” said Lawton.

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