Coronavirus: Target, Kohl's prepare for holidays dominated by online sales amid the pandemic

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U.S. jobless claims remain stubbornly high, having plateaued above 800,000 for weeks now. Target and Kohl's, however, plan to hire tens of thousands of seasonal workers even though holiday shopping will go mostly online due to the pandemic, potentially giving the economy a much needed jolt toward year end. There is also a ray of hope that Congress could revive stalled stimulus talks, with House Democrats preparing a smaller package to bring Republicans to the table.

Here are today's top headlines:

The following data was compiled by Johns Hopkins University:

  • Global cases: More than 31.9 million 
  • Global deaths: At least 977,452
  • U.S. cases: More than 6.93 million
  • U.S. deaths: At least 201,920

Costco surprised by discretionary spending during fiscal fourth quarter

Shoppers wearing face masks leave a Costco wholesale store in Washington, D.C.
Ting Shen | Xinhua News Agency | Getty Images

Costco customers sought out mattresses, exercise equipment, cookware and more, along with groceries as they shopped in the fiscal fourth quarter. 

The strength of discretionary spending was among the quarter's biggest surprises, CFO Richard Galanti said on a conference call with investors. He said customers bought more than just necessities as they spent less on travel and dining out. Early in the spring, he said, the company tried to cancel some of its orders for seasonal summer goods like patio furniture. "Very quickly, we were having to scramble for more of those," he said.

Costco's comparable sales grew about 14%, excluding impacts from gas price and currency changes. Its e-commerce sales grew about 91% in the quarter.

The retailer's fourth-quarter net income was $3.04 per share, compared to $1.10 billion, or $2.47 per share last year. The retailer has continued to pay an additional $2 an hour to hourly employees during the pandemic. Its fourth quarter was negatively impacted by expenses related to those higher wages and extra sanitation costs of $281 million before tax or 47 centers per share. It also had a $36 million or 6 cents per share pretax charge related to the prepayment of $1.5 billion of debt.

Still, Galanti said, the coronavirus pandemic continues to disrupt its supply chain and shake up the routine for customers. He said sanitizing wipes and latex wipes remain hard to stock, though meat has returned to more typical availability.

Costco has dialed back some of its holiday-related inventory. He said it ordered about 80% or 90% of its typical Halloween costume supply. It's also opted for "more basic candy items" and is "going a little more basic in some areas" for Christmas. —Melissa Repko

Top health officials try to reassure people of vaccine's safety

Top U.S. health officials, including White House coronavirus advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci and Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn, have tried to reassure people this week that an FDA-authorized vaccine would have to endure rigorous clinical trials to receive the federal government's authorization. 

"People are always saying, 'How do I know it's safe? How do I know it's effective?' There's a lot of confusion because there are mixed messages that are coming," Fauci, the director of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy during a Facebook Live conversation Thursday.

Recent polling suggests that the number of people willing to receive a coronavirus vaccine when it becomes available has fallen as concerns about a politicized approval process grow. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said that he wouldn't recommend a Covid-19 vaccine to New Yorkers based on the federal government's recommendation. —Noah Higgins-Dunn

Why a new coronavirus stimulus package could still happen

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 15, 2020.
Drew Angerer | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Democrats and Republicans agree that more coronavirus stimulus aid to help Americans amid the economic downturn is needed.

But disagreement on just how much money to provide continues to prevent them from getting the new legislation done.

The good news, according to Ed Mills, Washington policy analyst at Raymond James, is that there are a handful of issues where lawmakers on both sides agree action is needed.

But they have not been put together in one package or addressed separately, which could allow them to rise above the political impasse. 

"We have been surprised by D.C. in the past, where something that has been declared dead finds a way of resurrecting itself because of an unseen catalyst," Mills said.

House Democrats are currently working on a new $2.4 trillion stimulus bill that would include enhanced federal unemployment benefits and stimulus checks. 

That proposal is scaled back from the more than $3 trillion HEROES Act passed by the House in May. But it is still far from the $1 trillion target Republicans have said they favor.

There could still be reason for optimism that a deal can get done, according to Mills.

"In D.C., things are impossible right up until the moment it's inevitable," Mills said.

— Lorie Konish

House Dems prepare smaller relief package

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) holds a weekly press conference at the Capitol on September 24, 2020 in Washington, DC.
Liz Lynch | Getty Images

House Democrats are preparing a smaller coronavirus relief package that would cut their old proposal by roughly $1 trillion, in an effort to breathe life into talks with the White House that have been dead in the water for weeks. 

The package, with a $2.4 trillion price tag, would include key priorities for Democrats such as enhance unemployment insurance, stimulus checks, small business loans and aid to airlines among other provisions, a person familiar with the plans told CNBC.

 House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been pushing the Trump administration to increase their $1.3 trillion offer by another trillion dollars. — Spencer Kimball, Jacob Pramuk 

Target adjusts staffing approach as it prepares for "a very different holiday season"

Target's holiday hiring will look the same as last year, but with a different spin: Its staffing approach will emphasize online orders and flexibility to adapt to "a very different holiday season" amid the pandemic.

Like last year, the retailer plans to hire 130,000 seasonal workers; about 40% are typically retained as employees.

The roles the new hires fill will be different, though: Twice as many Target employees will be dedicated to same-day curbside and in-store pickup of online purchases compared with the first half of the year. Distribution centers will have more workers than last holiday season to make sure stores don't run out of popular items. Some workers will focus on safety and cleaning. Across stores, employees will also be cross-trained so they can switch from task to task as needed.

Target CEO Brian Cornell declined to provide an outlook for the typically busy time of year. He said he expects "certain trends from earlier this year will continue during the holiday season," such as customers wanting to feel safe at stores and seeking good value. 

Walmart said earlier this week that it will hire 20,000 seasonal workers to pack and ship online orders at its fulfillment centers. —Melissa Repko

Kohl's kicks off holiday hiring with plans to bolster its e-commerce efforts

A view outside a Kohl's store in Miramar, Florida.
Johnny Louis | Getty Images

The discount department store chain Kohl's has started hiring for the holidays at its stores, distribution and e-commerce fulfillment centers. 

While it didn't give an exact number for how many temporary workers it aims to bring on, a spokeswoman told CNBC the efforts are expected to be "comparable to past holiday seasons." In recent years, Kohl's has hired around 90,000 workers for the holidays. 

This holiday season, Kohl's said it is looking to grow a pilot test to 300 stores, where those locations will serve as mini fulfillment centers for online orders, which are expected to grow due to the coronavirus pandemic and more people staying put at home. Kohl's said it will add more inventory and technology to these shops, to allow workers to "be more efficient in fulfilling digital orders." Some holiday hires will be dedicated to working in these stores. 

A number of retailers are looking to bolster their e-commerce efforts in the back half of 2020, as they try to fend off Amazon. The big-box retailer Walmart announced earlier in the week it plans to bring on 20,000 seasonal employees to help pack and ship online purchases in its fulfillment centers. —Lauren Thomas 

U.S. stocks open lower amid concerns about the economy

U.S. stocks fell at the open as renewed concerns over the U.S. economy and mounting pressure on high-flying tech names dragged down the broader market, reports CNBC's Fred Imbert and Pippa Stevens. 

The Dow Jones Industrial Average slid 52 points, or 0.2%. The S&P 500 dipped 0.3% and The Nasdaq Composite pulled back by 0.4%. —Melodie Warner 

Retailers paying rent again, but they're still fighting with landlords

The Destiny USA mall reopens as the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) restrictions are eased in Syracuse, New York.
Maranie Staab | Reuters

While retailers are starting to pay back more in rent to their landlords, negotiations remain tense and in some instances are ending up in court. 

Less than a third of retail companies paid at least 75% of June rent, according to a study released Thursday by the National Retail Federation and the investment bank PJ Solomon. By July, the number of rent payers had almost doubled to 65%, it said. The study polled 48 C-level executives at retailers with at least 10 stores and more than $100 million in sales in 2019, from July 15 to July 28. 

The survey also found that 73% of retailers that missed payments are planning to pay back at least half of the rent owed since a nationwide shutdown began in March. More than half of respondents said they were able to get some sort of rent relief from their landlords, most likely in the form of a deferral. 

But when retailers pay less or no rent, it creates a ripple effect of consequences. Landlords like the mall owners Simon Property Group and CBL & Associates are feeling the pain. CBL is now expected to file for bankruptcy protection by Oct. 1, while Simon has taken some of its tenants, like Gap Inc., to court. And Brookfield Properties' retail arm is laying off 20% of its employees, or about 400 people, as it looks to dispose of some of its malls. —Lauren Thomas 

United to offer Hawaii passengers Covid-19 tests to get around quarantine requirements

A United Airlines Boeing 777-200 aircraft
Nicolas Economou | NurPhoto | Getty Images

Next month, the U.S. will get a glimpse of what traveling during the pandemic could look like in the coming months when United Airlines starts offering rapid Covid-19 tests to its Hawaii-bound passengers in San Francisco, the first major U.S. airline to make the tests available to travelers. 

The 15-minute nasal swab tests will be conducted at the international terminal at SFO starting Oct. 15. That's when Hawaii will start allowing travelers who have had a negative Covid-19 test within the last 72 hours to bypass a two-week quarantine requirement. Travelers will also be able to take an at-home test by Color. Passengers would pay for the tests.

The tests could be used as a blueprint for opening up international travel, where a web of restrictions has devastated demand for those once-lucrative routes. Airlines this week urged governments around the world to consider widespread testing before flights instead of blanket travel bans. —Leslie Josephs

U.S. unemployment claims remain stubbornly high

Initial jobless claims remained stubbornly high last week, with 870,000 Americans filing for unemployment. That outpaces Wall Street estimates of 850,000 and the prior period's total of 866,000. 

Before the coronavirus pandemic roiled the U.S. jobs market, weekly unemployment claims came in closer to 200,000 each week. At their peak in the March, more than 6 million Americans filed for benefits in a single week. The numbers have come down considerably from there, but have struggled to break below 700,000 initial claims. 

Businesses and local officials are working to strike a delicate balance of reopening and returning to work without worsening the spread of the coronavirus. That effort is only going to get trickier as colder temperatures set in and businesses are forced back indoors. —Sara Salinas

Dogs trained to sniff out Covid-19 start work in Helsinki airport

Dogs that have been trained to detect the coronavirus have started working at Helsinki Airport in Finland this week in a pilot project. The hope is that their sensitive noses can speed up the process of identifying anyone that is infected in a quick, effective and noninvasive way.

The director of Finland's Helsinki-Vantaa airport, which is run by Finavia, said it was one of the first airports to pilot the project: "As far as we know no other airport has attempted to use canine scent detection on such a large scale against Covid-19. We are pleased with the city of Vantaa's initiative. This might be an additional step forward on the way to beating Covid-19," Ulla Lettijeff said.

Several studies have found that dogs are able to smell the virus with almost 100% accuracy, and can even detect the virus before any symptoms are present. Preliminary tests conducted by a research group at the Veterinary Faculty of the University of Helsinki in May found that trained scent detection dogs might "even perform better than the current Covid-19 tests that are based on molecular techniques." Another study in Germany in July found that, if properly trained, dogs were able to discriminate between human saliva samples infected with SARS-CoV-2 and non-infected samples with a 94% success rate overall.

The dogs being used in Helsinki's airport pilot program do not come into direct contact with travelers, and the tests are voluntary. Anyone taking a test will swipe their skin with a test wipe and drop it into a cup, which is then given to the dog, Finavia noted, adding that "this also protects the dog's handler from infections."  If the test result is positive, passengers or airport personnel are then advised to take a regular coronavirus test to ensure the result is correct. —Holly Ellyatt

Daily new cases, by U.S. state

Darden Restaurants still struggles to bring customers back

Darden Restaurants said its fiscal first-quarter sales plunged 28%, as the business still struggles to bring customers back to Olive Garden, LongHorn Steakhouse and its other chains.

Same-store sales across all of its brands fell 29% during the quarter ended Aug. 30. But the company is expecting better results by the fiscal second quarter, when it expects sales to fall just 18% compared to the same time last year. —Amelia Lucas

Pandemic fuels homebuying affordability crisis

The coronavirus pandemic is shrinking homebuying supply and shortening moving timelines for many Americans, spurring an affordability crisis across much of the country, CNBC's Diana Olick reports. 

The median price for single-family homes and condos during the third quarter is less affordable than historical averages in nearly two-thirds of U.S. counties, according to property database Attom Data Solutions. That's up from just above half of U.S. counties a year ago. 

Price appreciation is outpacing wage appreciation in 90% of housing markets across the country. —Sara Salinas

Germany and Italy could be seeing second waves of cases

A paediatrician wearing a protective suit takes a swab sample from a young boy for a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) test in front of his medical office in Berlin, Germany.
Hannibal Hanschke | Reuters

As coronavirus cases began to surge in France, Spain and the U.K. this month, there were question marks over why Italy — the epicenter of Europe's first outbreak in spring — and Germany, Europe's largest economy, weren't seeing similar increases.

But looking at the most recent data, it appears Italy and Germany won't be able to avoid a second wave of the pandemic after all.

Italy's health ministry reported 1,640 new Covid-19 cases on Wednesday, up 250 cases from the previous day. On Monday, 1,350 new cases had been reported from the previous day, showing how rapidly the number of infections are rising.

Meanwhile, in Germany, the Robert Koch Institute reported a further 2,143 new infections Thursday, having registered 1,769 new infections on Wednesday and 1,821 new infections the day before. —Holly Ellyatt

AstraZeneca is still waiting for FDA go-ahead to resume U.S. trial

A sign marks an AstraZeneca facility in Waltham, Massachusetts.
Brian Snyder | Reuters

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration still hasn't approved the restart of AstraZeneca's clinical trial of its potential coronavirus vaccine in the U.S., nearly three weeks after the trial was paused due to safety concerns, Reuters reported.

AstraZeneca's vaccine candidate, which was initially developed in partnership with the University of Oxford, is on hold while regulators investigate an illness in one of the participants, according to the wire service. A study in Britain and other programs outside of the U.S. have allowed the company to resume its trial. —Terri Cullen

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