An effective COVID-19 vaccine being widely available early next year looks likely following news earlier this week that a vaccine candidate from Pfizer was at least 90% effective in preventing a viral infection. The light at the end of the pandemic tunnel is now visible, but the path to get there runs through what will likely be a very rough winter for the United States.

The U.S. registered over 140,000 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, according to Johns Hopkins University, far above peak levels reached earlier this year. New lockdown and stay-at-home orders may be necessary to slow the spread until a vaccine is ready, and that could seriously hurt the U.S. economy over the coming months. The Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJINDICES:^DJI) was down 0.45% at 11 a.m. EST Thursday as investors weighed the optimistic vaccine news against the cold reality of a winter wave of COVID-19.

Turning to individual stocks, shares of Walmart (NYSE:WMT) were up slightly on Thursday after the company announced an expansion of its pet services offerings, timed as pet adoption rates rise during the pandemic. Meanwhile, Nike (NYSE:NKE) stock was down slightly even after an analyst recommended the stock.

A pug.

Image source: Getty Images.

Walmart bets on pets

The global pet care market is expected to be worth over $200 billion by 2025, according to Grand View Research. Mega-retailer Walmart will be trying to snag as much of that market as possible with its new Walmart Pet Care service. Walmart Pet Care brings together the company's existing pet services with new services that together represent Walmart's attempt to offer "a full-service, omnichannel pet care offering."

Walmart began offering pet prescriptions through its PetRx program both in stores and online in 2019, and the company already sells a wide variety of pet products, including over 1,800 premium and specialty pet products. Walmart Pet Care will add a pet insurance product via a partnership with Petplan, as well as pet sitting and dog walking services through Rover.

Walmart's pet insurance offering will give customers as much as a 10% discount on their policies, which will cover veterinary fees due to accidents, injuries, and illnesses. The plans also include $1,000 worth of online virtual vet appointments.

A separate partnership with Rover will bring dog walking and pet sitting under the Walmart Pet Care umbrella. The retailer will offer customers a $20 Walmart gift card for completing the first service through Rover, and an additional $20 Walmart gift card after the fifth service completion within six months.

The timing of this expansion has everything to do with the pandemic. "Especially as adoption rates soar as a result of the pandemic, and more people become pet owners, this was the perfect time to launch expanded services in Walmart Pet Care for our customers," said Melody Richard, Walmart's pets merchandising vice president.

Shares of Walmart were up about 0.25% Thursday morning. The stock remains up around 25% since the start of the year.

Nike talked up by analyst

Nike has largely recovered from its pandemic-driven sales slump by leaning on direct-to-consumer sales. Total sales were flat adjusted for currency in the company's fiscal first quarter, and earnings per share shot up 10%. Direct sales grew by 12%, while digital sales soared 82%.

Analyst Kate Fitzsimons of RBC Capital Markets sees this direct-to-consumer shift as a good reason to suggest buying the stock despite a premium valuation. Fitzsimons argued on Thursday that the company can grow earnings per share by a mid-to-high-teens percentage annually through fiscal 2026 thanks to the direct-to-consumer strategy, enough growth to justify a sky-high valuation.

Analysts currently expect Nike to produce earnings per share of $3.69 on average in fiscal 2022. That puts the forward price-to-earnings ratio at roughly 35. Fitzsimons sees Nike generating higher margins over the next five years, with the gains driven by positive mix shifts, operating efficiency improvements, and a more productive wholesale operation.

Shares of Nike were down around 0.5% by Thursday morning. The stock has completely recovered from the pandemic-driven sell-off earlier this year and is up about 25% in 2020.

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.