In the grand scheme of life, investing in a bleach and cleaning supply company like Clorox (NYSE:CLX) isn't particularly exciting. Reliable, but not exciting.
That completely changed a month ago for U.S. investors, of course, when the global coronavirus contagion took root in North America. Within a matter of days, bleach was essentially impossible to find -- in stores or online. Ditto for Clorox's spray disinfectants and wipes. Some of these goods were (literally) only available on the black market, selling at outrageous prices.
That won't be the case forever. Eventually, consumers will have stockpiled enough, and manufacturers of cleaning products will be able to replenish store shelves. Somehow, though, consumer behavior may have been permanently altered by the realization that something you can't even see can still prove devastating. We'll all be spraying and wiping down our homes a little more often than we did before the COVID-19 outbreak.
That's the long way of saying yes, if Clorox was a good stock to own before March of this year, it's a great stock to own from this point forward.
More than a mere consumer-goods name
For the record, Clorox isn't just bleach. It's not just bleach and disinfectants, either. In fact, cleaning products only account for about one-third of its revenue and roughly half of its operating earnings. The company also owns brands like Fresh Step kitty litter, Glad trash bags, and Kingsford charcoal. They're all fine products, but not necessarily must-haves to defend against a pandemic.
Still, all of its products are the sort of low-cost, consistently reliable goods consumers are loyal to, prompting repeat purchases without a second thought.
Don't mistake the seeming simplicity of those products for a lack of sophistication from the company, however. While its customers are looking for no-thought solutions to everyday problems, Clorox has devoted a great deal of time and attention to figuring out what makes customers tick. It doesn't see itself as a product company. In the words of Doug Milliken, its vice president of "marketing transformation," it sees itself as "a customer experience company." In the same vein, it doesn't just have a digital presence. It's "being digital" because "the company needs to be organized around and operating in a digital way, end-to-end."
That's rather high-end thinking for a company that sells bleach, drain declogger, and charcoal. And yet it's not the end of the organization's effort to remain ahead of its competition. New product development isn't handled by a team of people shoved into a room for a few hours and instructed to simply create something new. The company has created what it calls the Clorox Open Innovation group, which facilitates discussions between the right people -- including outsiders -- and provides them data to make decisions. One such recent innovation, for example, is the creation of a disinfectant wipe that's compostable once it's been used.
Numbers don't lie
Perhaps the strategy is overkill for products and product derivatives consumers likely would have bought anyway.
But it's tough to argue with the success this obsession has earned the organization. The name Clorox has almost become synonymous with bleach. And most consumers would likely struggle to name a brand of grilling charcoal other than Kingsford. The happy result is years of mostly unfettered sales and earnings growth:
Analysts don't expect the company's growth trajectory to be altered by the coronavirus fallout, either. If anything, given the swell of demand for products from Clorox's most meaningful segment -- cleaning -- analysts may well be collectively underestimating the company's future. While it's difficult to say exactly how or to what degree they may change, it's equally difficult to believe consumers' hygiene behaviors won't remain at least slightly elevated once the contagion is in the rearview mirror.
Slow and steady wins the race
Clorox is not a growth stock, to be clear: Single-digit sales progress is the norm. Earnings grow at a slightly faster clip, but only slightly. It's not a winning lottery ticket.
For investors who have time and patience, though, Clorox is an easy name to own. It doesn't require much in the way of monitoring. Better still, the nature of the business is simple, but the existing management team fully understands that consumer behaviors are deceptively complex, and that team has proven it's up to the task. Again, results speak for themselves. That's why the company is such a "Steady Eddie" name.
The dividend yield of just under 2.5% isn't too bad either -- at least in the current low-yield environment. And the company hasn't failed to raise its dividend for 43 consecutive years.
That's another key characteristic of millionaire-maker stocks. In research shared in February, Hartford Funds confirmed (again) that, on average, dividend-paying stocks dramatically outperform dividend non-payers in the long run when those dividends are reinvested.