"In times of adversity and change, we really discover who we are and what we're made of."
-- Former Starbucks CEO, Howard Schultz 

Times are tough. Non-essential businesses are closed, unemployment claims are reaching staggering numbers, a global recession is likely, and no one knows when things will get back to normal. But top retailers are setting a course for surviving this crisis and laying a foundation to thrive afterward. Let's take a look at what these leaders are doing.

Taking care of employees

The essential-goods retailer for rural farmers and ranchers, Tractor Supply Company (NASDAQ:TSCO) has made a strong commitment to its employees. Along with raising pay for employees working during the coronavirus, it extended sick leave and is hiring 5,000 additional staff for safety-related tasks and additional coverage for those who are sick. It's providing personal protective equipment stores and distribution-center workers, waived the copays for telehealth visits, and added $500,000 to its employee-assistance fund.

These employee-centric actions have totaled $7 million in Q1-2020 and could run as high as $50 million for the current quarter. This is a small price to pay to insure its most valuable resource -- 33,000-plus workers -- are well cared for.

Keeping customers informed

Starting on January 31, 2020, retail giant Walmart (NYSE:WMT) posted its first press release about its coronavirus response. Since then, it's posted dozens of detailed releases related to its actions, changes to store practices, and how it's ensuring customers have a safe shopping experience. This information and a frequently-asked-questions section are prominently displayed on its website in a section titled "Here for you."

Woman with face mask shopping.

Retailers are adapting to provide a coronavirus-safe shopping experience. Image source: Getty images

Even though not all customers will read these notices or see the FAQs, they serve as statements of the company's commitment to a safe environment and as guidance to all store personnel on how to act. Customers who shop in the stores or utilize the morning pickup times for seniors will take notice, and remember the care and consistency this retail giant took to ensure their safety.

Bolstering cash

Home Depot (NYSE:HD) decided to add an additional $5 billion in long-term debt to its balance sheet. It stated in its Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filing that it will use the proceeds for "general corporate purposes," including to pay off a debt note that's due later this year.

Even though it had $2.1 billion in cash and cash equivalents, the home improvement retailer spends over $5 billion per month to run its stores. This extra cash on the balance sheet provides the company additional breathing room -- just in case.

There are numerous reasons why cash is king, especially now: Disrupted supply chains, coronavirus pay for those working in stores, extended sick leave, and reduced cash flow due to slowing sales. This is a smart move that will help the retailer meet its financial commitments to its employees, suppliers, and shareholders.

Building goodwill

Michael Donaghu, VP, Innovation for Nike (NYSE:NKE) joined on a call the morning of March 20 to see if the sneaker brand could help provide much-needed personal protective equipment to healthcare workers. Within days, his team had prototypes of a face shield built, and by April 3, the company delivered its first shipment from its Air Manufacturing Innovation centers in Oregon and Missouri. As of April 21, just a month later, it had delivered more than 130,000 face shields to medical workers in five states.

Nike's leadership, the company, and its foundation have also committed more than $17.5 million in funds to help the global COVID-19 response. The sneaker giant's selfless efforts during this difficult time further cement its status as a trusted brand.

Investors should take note

Retailers are facing challenges today that no one could have predicted. How management responds in these times tells investors a lot about the character of these companies. The retailers referenced in this article have access to resources that many non-essential or poorly performing businesses lack. This pandemic won't be the cause of retail closures but will further accelerate the downfall of those with lackluster sales or broken business models.

It's a good time to look at what top management is doing for the companies in your portfolio. Now, more than ever, investors will be able to see what stuff they are made of.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.