CHICAGO — Grainger today reported results for the first quarter 2021 with sales of $3.1 billion, up 2.8% and up 5.9% on an organic, daily, constant currency basis compared to the first quarter 2020 driven by strong performance in both the High-Touch Solutions North America (N.A.) and Endless Assortment segments.
“The Grainger team served customers exceptionally well and delivered strong results in the first quarter as the economy continued to recover. In our High Touch Solutions (N.A.) segment, we are seeing sequential revenue improvement in nearly all end markets, recovery in non-pandemic product volume, and stabilizing gross profit margins after adjusting for non-core pandemic inventory. Our Endless Assortment segment continues to deliver over 20% top line growth and improved earnings as expected. Our strong performance in the first quarter gives us the confidence to now provide guidance for the full year,” said DG Macpherson, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer.
2021 First Quarter Financial Summary
Sales for the quarter increased 2.8% as compared to the first quarter of 2020. Excluding revenues from the now divested Fabory and China businesses from the prior year results, and removing the impact from foreign currency translation, daily sales increased 5.9% as compared to the first quarter of 2020. Sales growth was fueled by both the High-Touch Solutions (N.A.) and Endless Assortment segments. In the High-Touch Solutions (N.A.) segment, despite challenging comparisons starting in mid-February with the accelerated pandemic sales of 2020, sales were up 1.8%, and 3.4% on a daily basis versus the prior year quarter. In the Endless Assortment segment, both Zoro U.S. and MonotaRO continued to drive strong customer acquisition throughout the quarter, resulting in a combined 27.4% daily sales growth compared to the first quarter of 2020.
Foreign exchange contributed a 1.1% favorable impact during the first quarter of 2021 compared to the first quarter of 2020. There were 63 sales days in the first quarter of 2021 versus 64 sales days in the first quarter of 2020.
Gross margin for the first quarter of 2021 was 35.5%, a 190 basis point decline over the prior year quarter. The unfavorable variance was driven almost entirely by a pandemic-related inventory adjustment in the U.S. business on certain non-core SKUs, which are selling below cost based on current market-relevant pricing. As noted on the fourth quarter 2020 earnings call, this inventory adjustment in the first quarter of 2021 was expected and by the end of the second quarter, the company expects to sell-through these non-core pandemic products and complete any potential remaining market-driven inventory adjustments. Absent this inventory adjustment, gross margin would have been nearly flat compared to the prior year. The Endless Assortment segment expanded gross profit margin 35 basis points in the first quarter and continues to deliver incremental gross profit dollars. The significant revenue growth in this lower-margin segment had an expected, dilutive impact to total company gross profit margin of approximately 30 basis points.
Reported operating earnings for the first quarter of 2021 of $358 million were up 126% versus the first quarter of 2020, primarily due to charges taken in the first quarter of 2020 related to the now divested Fabory business. On an adjusted basis, operating earnings for the quarter of $358 million were up 4% versus the first quarter of 2020.
In the first quarter of 2021, operating margin of 11.6% increased 630 basis points on a reported basis, 20 basis points on an adjusted basis, versus the first quarter of 2020. The increase in adjusted operating margin was driven by 210 basis points of selling, general, and administrative (SG&A) expense leverage achieved through prudent cost control in the High-Touch Solutions (N.A.) segment and strong expense leverage in Endless Assortment.
Reported earnings per share of $4.48 in the first quarter of 2021 represented an increase of 40% versus the first quarter of 2020. Adjusted earnings per share in this quarter of $4.48 increased 6% versus the first quarter of 2020. The increase in earnings per share was due primarily to higher operating earnings and lower average shares outstanding in the current period.
The first quarter 2021 reported tax rate was 25.8% versus negative 30.4% in the first quarter of 2020. The difference was primarily driven by tax impacts in the first quarter of 2020 related to the now divested Fabory business. The adjusted tax rates were 25.8% and 25.6% for the three months ended March 31, 2021 and March 31, 2020, respectively.
Net cash provided by operating activities was $294 million and $244 million for the three months ended March 31, 2021 and 2020, respectively. The increase in cash from operating activities is primarily the result of higher net earnings and favorable working capital, including strong accounts receivable collections, partially offset by the impacts from the now divested Fabory business. The company also returned $256 million to shareholders through dividends and share repurchases during the quarter.
During the annual shareholders’ meeting on April 28, 2021, Grainger announced a dividend increase of 6%, marking its 50th consecutive annual increase, as well as new authorization for a share repurchase program of up to 5 million shares replacing the company’s existing program.
Given continued improvements in the economy and confidence in our performance, the company is now providing the following 2021 full year guidance:
First Quarter Financial Highlights
- Delivered sales of $3.1 billion, up 2.8%, and up 5.9% on an organic, daily, constant currency basis compared to the first quarter 2020 (excluding divestitures and foreign exchange)
- Expanded reported and adjusted operating margins by 630 and 20 basis points, respectively
- Generated $294 million in operating cash flow and returned $256 million to shareholders through dividends and share repurchases
- Provides full year guidance: Total company daily revenue growth of 8.5-11.0% and earnings per share of $19.00-20.50 (growth of 17.5% to 26.5%)