Daniel L. Florness
President and Chief Executive Officer at Fastenal
Thank you, Ellen and good morning everybody and thank you for joining us on our fourth quarter earnings call. Before I start, I would like to make sure my mind is cleared of things, so I can focus on the quarter. And I just thought I'd share a personal story and that is a little after 5 this morning, I received the text from my wife, her father Glenn Gustavson afternoon as Gust had passed away at the age of 90. And there wasn't a trip that he made to Winona, he was in Eastern Wisconsin to South of Green Bay.
There wasn't a trip that we made to Winona where he won't tell me how many Fastenal trucks he met on the road or he want been with the pride when he would drive by peers manufacturing in absolute Wisconsin, see those shiny fire trucks knowing that the Blue team with a whole bunch of vending machines were inside that facility helping peers manufacture those fire trucks. This will be my first earnings call in 26 years, but I won't be able to share tidbits of it with Gust after the call and just want to let Gust love you and he will be missed and rest assured the Packers will figure out a way to win this weekend with Alia.
With that a bit on the fourth quarter. So our sales, we grew 13% in the fourth quarter. We had one less business days, we grew almost 15% on a daily basis and the quarter was gaining momentum as we went through it with December growing at 16.5%. We leveraged our income statement and our operating margin grew almost 14% and the quarter really reflects strong underlying demand, good execution on pricing, improved product availability in our supply chain and in full disclosure, probably the benefit of fewer holiday-related shutdowns that would be typical for this period.
It often gets a little bit dizzying trying to make comparisons in 2021 to the prior year, given all the wild COVID swings. So I thought I'd share a few vantage point by looking at a two-year comparison. When we started the year, Q1 was up just over 8% from two years earlier and that was a reflection of a weaker environment, a lot of uncertainty. I'm pleased to say that as we went through the year, that picked up in the second quarter on a two-year basis, we were up just over 10%. In the third quarter on a two-year basis, we were up 13%. In the fourth quarter we were up 20%. And if you look at it on a daily basis, we are up almost 22%. So very pleased with how the year was strengthening within our business as it progressed.
Our gross margin recovered from 2020 as we expected. And it's down from 2019 as we expected, as Holden has shared on earlier calls. The way we're growing the business and the way the mix is changing does cause our gross margin to decline over time. Again, it's a mixed function. And -- but it also causes our operating expense to drop over time and we think it's a very effective way to grow the business for our customers, for our employees and for our shareholders.
The -- on a two-year basis, our operating profit grew faster than sales, which really speaks to greater productivity that I touched on a moment ago and very effective cost control on the part of the Blue team throughout the organization. When we talk and look at the impacts of COVID-19 and how we think about it on a future basis, we now consider COVID-19 to be merely an ongoing element of our global business environment. And like all the society, we have to learn how to live with it. The first step for us is recognizing it for what it is, it's a serious virus. But we -- but our approach is not one of fear and chaos. It's an approach of sharing the facts with our customers and our employees, what we're doing and how we're handling it day to day.
I can share with you, at the end of last year, cumulatively, we've had 3,400 cases, within the Fastenal family over that almost two-year period. Since year-end, that 3,400 has grown to 4,000 as we've had about 600 cases in the first two weeks of the month, about 400 of those occurring last week. If patterns, in January, a mirror what we saw after Thanksgiving in the United States, I would expect our numbers to drop-off in the next couple of weeks and to move back to kind of that 40, 50 to 60 cases per week that we've seen before, and time will tell if patterns repeat themselves.
The -- again the biggest focus that we've had in is sharing facts with our employees. We have renovated aggressively our facilities, the air handling to make the air cleaner in all of our facilities. Quite frankly not just for COVID but for flu season in general. And it's one way of addressing the comfort for everybody in the business. The growth driver details are laid out on Page 5 and we continue to see expansion in sales through our digital footprint, which was 46.4% of sales in the fourth quarter versus 37% in four quarter 2020.
Again on Page 4, this is just a comparison to 2019. Thought it'd be helpful for folks looking at the call. And what emerges for me is a business that exits this two-year period stronger as an organization than we entered this two-year period. And I think, which bodes well for our business as we move into the future. And one thing I think that probably understated in these comparisons, when you're looking at the sales growth and our operating income growth, in other words, how did we leveraged and how did we improved the business. The third -- three-month period on a two-year basis was actually slightly understated in our strength, because we have one less business day. And when you do $25 million a day, a lot of the gross profit flow straight to the P&L and that 25.9% operating income growth would have been meaningfully stronger.
Flipping to Page 5. You know, Holden -- I've been stealing his thunder in recent weeks based on a comment he made to an investor on a call I participated in some months back. And he said, you know, in 2020 and 2021, our customers asked Fastenal for different things than in prior years. If you look at prior years, our customers were increasingly asking us to move in with them and be Onsite and provide resources right in their facility rather than from a few miles away. They also asked us to deploy technology to help their businesses be more efficient. Initially it was vending, now it's a combination of vending bins and what we call FASTStock, our mobility applications or more broadly our FMI technology.
But it's really about helping customers, be more successful inside their facilities. As you see from these jagged starts, our Onsite signings and our FMI device signings have been meaningfully impacted by COVID over the last two years. However, we feel our opportunity for the future is unpainted by this and if anything it's strengthened because the definition of who is the potential customer has expanded dramatically during this time frame.
The one thing that I think should jump out, because of our brands footprint, one thing that for us has always been a relatively small piece is the e-commerce component within our technology platform. And I'm pleased to say that our customers are embracing that more and more and that's partly a function of the times and maybe partly a function of us embracing it too. But our web sales were up almost 50%. Our EDI was up 47.8%, and combined, it was up about -- e-commerce was up 48% in the fourth quarter of 2021.
Page 6 is our new chart I asked Holden to put in. And it's stem from a question one of our Directors had in preparation for the Board meeting and those really looking at the fact that we've closed a lot of branches over the last six, seven years. And where do you see that going to. And most of those closures have really occurred in our most mature market, the United States and to a lesser degree up in Canada. But in those two markets combined, we've seen the same pattern. So our branch network peaked out in that 2013 timeframe. At that point in time, if you just started in one of our branches and would it be up in a vehicle and drove 30 minutes, our network would have touched about 95% of the US manufacturing base.
I don't have that exact statistics for Canada, so you bear with me please. But today, that number is about 94% as we've rationalized our network. And we believe that ultimately our branch network in US and Canada will be about 1,450 locations. So there is a few more to consolidate. And that would be about a 93.5% coverage rate on the manufacturing based in United States. As I mentioned on the previous page, our business has evolved. And one of those elements is e-commerce. So in March of 2020, we broke 10% of sales going through e-commerce for the first time in our history.
As we exit 2021, that number is now 15% of sales. As I mentioned on the previous page, from Q4 to Q4, our volume in e-commerce is up about 48%. And in that two-year period from Q4 of '19 to Q4 of 2021, so going back to before COVID started, we are up 105% in our e-commerce business. And it's really a reflection of our customer braced is embracing this way of ordering products from us. But our thrust is first and foremost with FMI technology. If there is a discernible pattern to the usage of this product within a customer's facility, most businesses, most distribution businesses, focused on how do I make that in electronic order. We look at him and say, well, if there's a discernible pattern, why are you even order in the first place. Your supply chain partners should make it available when you need it. And that's what FMI technology is all about.
With that, I'll switch it over to Holden.