Grocery Store Foot Traffic During COVID

For this post, we created a Tableau workbook to track and compare retail foot traffic data from the nation’s most-visited grocery stores over the past two years.

Looking closely at the visitation data at grocery stores from the past two years can help us understand regional trends in brand affinity, visualize how the pandemic has affected household shopping habits, and identify areas for market growth in the post-pandemic era.

How Top US Grocers Stack Up

From December 1, 2019 until November 30, 2021, the nation’s top-performing grocery stores included the following brands:

  • Costco
  • Kroger
  • Publix
  • Sam’s Club
  • Safeway
  • ALDI
  • Food Lion
  • H-E-B Grocery
  • Meijer
  • ShopRite

On this list, subscription-based big box brands Costco and Sam’s Club boast the widest national reach: they have locations in 45 and 44 states, respectively, as well as Washington D.C. The other eight, all more traditional, mid-sized supermarkets, operate on a far more limited regional scale: ALDI, the discount grocery chain of German origin, has the most physical locations of the ten, but they are mainly found in the eastern half of the country. Kroger, Publix, and Food Lion are spread throughout the southeastern quadrant of the country, stretching from the mid-Atlantic to Florida; ShopRite is a New England brand, while Meijer serves Michigan and the surrounding states. Safeway’s territory is mainly the west coast and southwest, and H-E-B finds its home in Texas. 

Notably, while big-box stores appear to enjoy a relative geographic advantage in terms of national spread, on the state level, regional supermarket brands appear more popular with grocery store shoppers. Taking a look at the grocery brands with the most visits in a sampling of states from the eastern Midwest and south Atlantic regions of the country (where the market for the highest number of these brands overlaps) reveals the following:

  • Indiana: Kroger, 32% of state foot traffic
  • Ohio: Kroger, 34.4% of state foot traffic
  • Georgia: Kroger, 27.6% of state foot traffic
  • Florida: Publix, 51.8% of state foot traffic
  • Texas: H-E-B, 35.4% of state foot traffic
  • Oklahoma: Sam’s Club, 25.9% of state foot traffic

First, Kroger is enjoying widespread success in this region: the brand frequently takes the top spot in visitation in a given state, and where it does, it often corners at least a third of the foot traffic. Kroger might investigate where its competitive advantages lie to understand whether it can repeat that playbook elsewhere or even expand into new markets. If it can beat the big brands at home, perhaps it can trump them elsewhere, too.

The second outstanding trend is that very rarely does a big-box brand earn the top spot for dominating foot traffic among its competitors in a given state. Oklahoma, where Sam’s Club reported 25% of the state’s grocery foot traffic, is a stand-out case in this respect. In fact, the data further shows that across the region and nation as a whole, Sam’s Club and Costco only infrequently manage to claim more than 10% of a state’s total foot traffic to grocery stores. 

With that in mind, identifying those rare regions where Sam’s Club and Costco are performing more competitively with regional supermarkets could help them identify reasons for success that might be replicable elsewhere. Similarly, the national brands might identify areas where they are lagging particularly far behind regional rivals and determine whether they need to do more to localize their appeal or if there are other factors, such as store location density, driving the deficit. 

Sam’s Club may want to look more closely not only at Oklahoma but also North and South Dakota, where the brand captured 16% and 15% of grocery traffic from the past two years. For Costco, California is a clear gold mine: It’s the only state in the nation where the brand enjoyed the status as most visited grocer, capturing 17.3% of the state’s total grocery store visitors over the past two years.

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COVID’s Effect on Grocery Store Foot Traffic

Looking at the month-by-month graph of these brands’ foot traffic from December 2019 to November 2021, a couple of things stand out. First, while all brands show a sharp drop in visitors around May 2020, when COVID anxiety and lockdown orders were widespread, May of 2021 is another story altogether: Across the board, visitation numbers hit a clear peak within this two-year period, granting all retailers a welcome surge of visitors that more-often-than-not surpasses their pre-COVID performance in December 2019. 

The peak of this surge-attributable to a combination of low national infection rates, expanding vaccine availability, and the onset of warmer weather-doesn’t last beyond the end of summer for any of our competitors. Nonetheless, over this period of time, two brands appear to be better positioned to ride the waves of pandemic-era traffic. Costco and ALDI stand out among the group of retailers as the only brands that show a positive rate of change in foot traffic over the past 24 months: simply put, their stores reported an increase in total visitors nationwide over the months of the pandemic. By contrast, the average foot traffic recorded by all of the other brands among these top ten either averages out to remain relatively stable over the past two years-as is the case for Sam’s Club and H-E-B-or shows a gradual but undeniable downward trend. 

Although this lead appears subtle now, it points out potential areas for valuable further investigation and exploitation for both Costco and ALDI. Each brand might do more research into the factors that have contributed to their stores not only retaining but growing their customer base since the start of the pandemic. Perhaps consumers hoping to reduce overall trips to the supermarket in the pandemic are drawn to the convenience and wide selection of big-box stores like Costco: note that Sam’s Club traffic, while not increasing on the whole, still appears quite steady over the past 24 months. 

For ALDI, this may be an indicator that the pandemic has opened the door for the chain’s market share to expand beyond its nominal status as a discount brand. In both Pittsburgh and Cleveland-two cities where ALDI locations surpassed 10 million visitors in 24 months-the brand is in the top three most-visited grocers in the metropolitan area. While local grocer Giant Eagle takes the top spot in both cities, ALDI appears to be an attractive alternative to the traditional supermarkets: in both cases, the brand captured more than 10% of foot traffic for this period, edging out both Costco and Sam’s Club. ALDI might consider doing further analysis into locations where its convenient pricing and selection can compete more actively with familiar regional supermarkets. 

Recommendations

Our analysis yields the following recommendations:

  • Costco and ALDI have had the most success at increasing foot traffic during the pandemic. Both would do well to investigate markets where they’ve been especially successful in hopes of replicating that success. Was it the convenience of Costco’s vast grocery shopping options? ALDI’s low prices and ability to cater to more budget-minded consumers?
  • Kroger is beating national brands in the Midwest and Southeast. Could it beat them elsewhere, too, perhaps incentivizing the chain to break into new markets? Or is its success in the states where it is popular reducible to store volume?
  • Costco and Sam’s Club rarely edge out regional rivals in a given state market. Can they close the gap via operational or marketing changes? Do they need to localize their approaches?

This analysis only scratches the surface of what our solutions can power. 

Unacast’s data scientists can work with Sam’s Club, Costco, and other grocers to dig deeper into location data and unearth a more profound understanding of consumer behavior, mobility trends, and the factors that drive them.

To learn more, schedule a meeting with us.


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