The coronavirus pandemic has rearranged consumer shopping preferences in some fundamental ways. One of the biggest trends has been a shift in spending away from discretionary niches like restaurants and movie theaters and toward home food and maintenance supplies.

This move has benefited the businesses of Clorox (CLX 0.18%), General Mills (GIS -1.14%), and Campbell Soup (CPB -0.66%) in recent months. But should investors expect the gains to persist beyond the first half of 2020? Let's take a closer look.

Faster sales growth

Each of these companies announced significantly stronger sales and profits in the most recent quarter. Campbell Soup's organic sales gains jumped to 17% from 1% as people stocked up on its prepared food products. General Mills noted surging demand for breakfast and pet-supply goods when it announced a 16% sales spike for the three months ended on May 31. Revenue was running flat before the pandemic struck.

A child eating a bowl of cereal.

Image source: Getty Images.

And Clorox enjoyed the biggest boost to date, with revenue growth accelerating to 18% and then 22% in the last two quarters, compared to flat results in the pre-pandemic days.

These gains have made these consumer staples specialists more profitable and boosted their cash flows. At last count, Campbell Soup's pre-tax earnings rose 31%, General Mills' was up 24%, and Clorox's jumped 35%. Those are huge numbers for businesses that are used to expanding profits by around 5% each year.

Persistent gains

Economies around the world have reopened and relaxed stay-at-home orders, which means these growth and earnings numbers aren't likely to be repeated. Still, even as consumers venture back out to restaurants and scale back on work-from-home time, all three businesses should continue seeing modest increases to the growth rates that shareholders witnessed before COVID-19. It's likely that consumer mobility will be pressured at least until a vaccine is developed and widely disseminated around the world.

In the meantime, the big question is which consumer staples stocks have a chance at turning this one-time demand boost into a sustainably stronger business. While Clorox might seem like the obvious choice here thanks to its focus on cleaning supplies both in home and office settings, in my view General Mills looks more attractive today.

One strong candidate

It was winning market share even before COVID-19 accelerated the company's growth rate starting in mid-March. General Mills bolstered those gains by picking up millions of new customers across its breakfast, baking, and snacking brands during the pandemic's peak impact period. Its significant pet food business, anchored by the popular Blue Buffalo brand, adds another attractive avenue for faster growth and rising profitability.

Like all of its peers, General Mills sees major risks to the growth picture over the next year or so, including a sharp recession that might linger in places like the U.S. and Europe. The COVID-19 threat varies by region and continues to move unpredictably through different markets. Demand for its products will be highly dependent on consumer mobility due to the timing of school reopenings, for example, and the stickiness of work-from-home setups.

The fact that these issues persuaded management to decline to issue any outlook for fiscal 2021 should be a reminder to investors that there's an unusually wide range of potential growth results on tap for General Mills. But it has a big opportunity to win over its newest customers, many of whom are in demographic niches that it doesn't traditionally serve. This group needs to become loyal fans of its snacking, breakfast, and pet food products for General Mills to truly capitalize on changes in consumer behavior from the pandemic.