Last week felt like a big one in California. Vaccination rates are up, cases have slowed to a trickle, and the state has now fully reopened. Across the US, our initial spike of foot traffic enthusiasm has subdued a bit. All the things we didn’t expect to pop — like grocery, big box, and dollar stores — have subsided to their usual levels. But the Vacillating category — the hotels, casual restaurants, entertainment venues, and bars — hasn’t given up its gains. And in some cases, traffic is still trending upward.
The pandemic raised new questions, new challenges, brought new opportunities, and accelerated the need for data-driven decisions across many industries. We recently teamed up with our partners at PwC to share our approach for enhancing existing demand models using multiple datasets and to show an example of how they’re built in the PwC ecosystem. We discussed from our respective points of view how demand changed, and how it can affect your planning.
The second Reemergence we saw last issue has tempered a bit. A confluence of events — rising vaccine deployment, dropping case numbers, improving weather, federal stimulus, and more — drove people out of their homes seemingly all at once. Even businesses that were already doing well, like fast food restaurants, enjoyed a spike in traffic starting February 20th.
Today we’re going to look at our Second Reemergence. Foot traffic has dramatically increased over the last few weeks as quarantine fatigue, vaccinations, declining case counts, weather, and more encouraged us to leave our homes en masse. We’re not back to normal. Like our first reemergence last Spring, traffic is distributed differently and highly regional. But even still: we haven’t seen activity like this in quite some time.
We’re in the middle of a significant COVID surge, with a 54% growth in the new case rate over the last 14 days. Nearly every state is trending the wrong way and hospitalizations are up dramatically. In response, many states have issued new restrictions and guidance. So, how have consumers adjusted?
In our last issue, we named the Fall Flats, the latest phase we’ve measured in traffic reemergence. We had been hesitating to pick a name for this time period because, well, nothing was happening. Traffic had reached an equilibrium. The Summer Slump seamlessly transitioned to unchanging foot traffic in September and October.
According to the data, reemergence marches on, slowly and subtly. We’re now in a phase where national changes to foot traffic are small to nonexistent for most categories. We quantify visitation trends by comparing a 7-day average volume of foot traffic to the 7 days prior. This metric removes blips and lets us measure how much foot traffic is increasing or decreasing over the past week.
We are now into Fall, but the phase after the Summer Slump defies definition. It is a slowww crawl upwards for most categories – barely above a flatline.
With this week, Summer is officially over. And so too our Summer Slump comes to an end, with traffic ever-so-slightly up from its August levels. Now, there’s something to note about that Labor Day spike: it’s not what it seems. Our Reemergence Index works by comparing weekday traffic year-over-year. We compare the 14th Friday in 2020 to the 14th Friday in 2019.
Coronavirus metrics across most of the US continue to head in the right direction. We’re starting to see some upticks in traffic; most categories are slightly up. Though, not quite dramatically enough to coin a new phrase to follow the Summer Slump. Let’s see what happens next week. Interestingly, we’re seeing a jump in the tourism segment. Visits to airports, hotels, and outdoor areas are up significantly vs. a year prior.
It appears as though the Summer Slump continues on. In one more week, it will match the duration of the Reemergence Ramp. Traffic is mostly flat, aside from traffic to Nature & Outdoor venues (which has been cycling a bit with recent weather patterns) – and some signs of life among the lower trafficked categories, like hotels and movie theaters.
Time moves differently during a Pandemic. The news is constant, cramming what would have been a week’s worth of content into a single day. But at the same time, here we are in August. Time both crawls and runs in the era of COVID. Reviewing this week’s foot traffic category indices, we were similarly struck by how long the Summer Slump has persisted. Here we are, in August, still in the thick of sustained, flat traffic.
Dining is a category that has continued to change regionally, nationally, by category, even by meal time. With the nation still in what we’re calling a traffic Summer Slump, restaurants are reacting in real time to manage official guidelines and the safety and preferences of diners. The stall – or slump – in reemergence remains visible in our latest analysis.
It’s fair to say we could all use a change of scenery right now. Over the last few weeks, we keep hearing about the mundane vacation. Friends and colleagues have been renting or borrowing houses for a week or two if only to answer email and video conference from a different couch, cook from a different kitchen, visit a different grocery store, and hike a new trail. These places are relatively close by – only a road trip away.
You don’t need a data analyst to tell you people are going outside a lot more these days. Camping sites are nearly impossible to come by. You can’t find an RV to rent. Bikes are sold out everywhere. These trends illustrate a pattern we’ve observed during COVID: if an activity is nearby, safe, and cheap people will flock to it. Beaches and forests are often within driving distance, outdoors, and (generally) lend themselves well to social distancing. This is a summer of road trips.
We’re not quite ready to call it a new phase in our quarantine life, but the Reemergence Ramp has largely plateaued in recent weeks. The change kicked in around June 20th, as we saw regional upticks in cases throughout the south and west, and has persisted through some holiday spikes. We’ll dive into the slowdown of traffic in more detail below.
Last week was the week foot traffic tapped the brakes as consumers grew cautious in the face of rising case counts in several states. After nearly a month of strong growth across most categories – including some surprising gainers like malls and casual dining – foot traffic stalled for 7 of the top 9 categories. Big box retail, grocery, pharmacy, mall, fast casual dining, and fast food all paused their reemergence and shrank a few points.
Today, we’re going to continue to review what reemergence has looked like so far. It’s even more complex than we had previously stated: traffic recovery is varying by region not just by the amount of recovery but by the speed and direction of change.
When looking at velocity and recovery, most categories fit neatly into three clusters. Those locations still empty included Entertainment, Offices, Airports; those beginning reemergence included Shopping Malls and Hotels; and those steadily reemerging included Fast Casual Dining and Coffee Shops. However, there were a couple outliers – and one category we’ve found intriguing is Auto.
Incredibly, we’ve hit the three month milestone of post-COVID life. In that time, we’ve had three distinct phases of foot traffic activity: Panic and Prepare: Beginning on 3/11, the nation quickly prepared for sheltering-in-place and returned to their homes. Over ten days, foot traffic went wild before landing at all-time-lows for most categories.