Retail Impact Scoreboard - November 2021

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Retail Foot Traffic Has Not Recovered to 2019 Levels as Holidays Begin

The common wisdom is that holiday shoppers are starting early this season to cope with COVID-related shipping delays, but if that is true, even the holidays have not been enough to elevate retail foot traffic to 2019 levels. 

As of November 6, average foot traffic per US retail store was down 36% compared to 2019. What’s more, in the four weeks ending in the first week of November, foot traffic declined 10%, a concerning sign for the beginning of the holiday shopping period, when one might otherwise have expected brick-and-mortar visits to rise.

Let’s dive into the foot traffic data from Unacast’s Retail Impact Scoreboard to understand how retail is performing as a whole and which industries stand out from the crowd, for better or worse.

How Retail Foot Traffic Has Evolved in 2021

Overall US retail foot traffic hit its 2021 peak in early April, likely reflecting both a downward trend in COVID cases and enthusiasm for going out in the early days of mass vaccination. Indeed, the strongest part of the year for retail was March through June, the spring period when vaccines were becoming widely available and COVID cases were declining to record lows nationwide. 

But foot traffic plummeted in July, likely reflecting the impact of the Delta variant, which caused cases to skyrocket and appears to have led many consumers to shy away from stores. The seven-day COVID case average climbed from just under 15,000 July 7 to nearly 80,000 by July 31 and 160,000 August 31.

Sure enough, retail foot traffic hit its 2021 nadir August 2, and while visitation has partially recovered since then, Q4 data indicate that September and October brick-and-mortar visits have yet to reclaim their spring highs.

Delta has receded since it propelled cases to about 160,000 per week in August and September, a change that might prompt many to wonder why retail has not returned to its spring performance. But a closer look at the COVID data provides hints as to why foot traffic has not fully returned to the halcyon days of May. While the outbreak has improved, it is nowhere near as tame as it was in the spring — the seven-day case average has lingered around about 70,000 since mid-October, compared to June lows of 15,000. So, it is intuitive that foot traffic would also fail to reclaim its prior heights.

Top-Performing Industries

Compared to 2019 performance, the industries that have recovered best in the US are, in order:

  1. Auto dealerships and car rentals
  2. Restaurants
  3. Pets
  4. Miscellaneous goods
  5. Wellness and fitness

But even the performance of the top-recovering industry, auto dealerships and car rentals, is not exactly inspiring. For example, that category’s foot traffic is down 24% compared to 2019 levels. The wellness and fitness industry, which has notched the fifth-best recovery, is down 31% over the same timeframe. 

To be clear, several percentage points of overall foot traffic may reflect hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue, so the difference between such industries is not to be ignored. But that the top-recovering industry’s foot traffic is still down 24% compared to 2019 shows that COVID continues to depress revenue, at least offline, and that, even if some industries are recovering revenue via online retail sales, COVID’s transformation of the US economy remains powerfully apparent.

Some industries are down big time relative to 2019 but recovering faster of late. For example, store traffic for the entertainment and hobbies category is down 41% compared to 2019. But the industry is only down 25% since February, reflecting upward momentum. Similarly, the travel and hospitality industry is down 43% compared to 2019 but down only 21% since February. While these industries are particularly vulnerable to COVID, seeing as they mostly hinge on real-world movement, epidemiological improvements this year appear to be helping them make up for some of the massive losses the pandemic inflicted.

Industries Having a Rough Fall

The five worst-performing industries among the 14 Unacast is tracking are, in order from worst-performing to best:

  1. Travel and hospitality
  2. Clothing and accessories
  3. Entertainment and hobbies
  4. Home goods and improvement
  5. General retail

It is no surprise that travel and hospitality is having the toughest time relative to 2019. Foot traffic for clothing and accessories, the second worst-performing category, is down 43% compared to 2019. However, this is where customer traffic as a benchmark for retail store performance requires some nuance. Clothing is a category that lends itself particularly well to online shopping, so it may be the case that apparel retailers are largely making up the difference in brick-and-mortar sales online.

The massive drop in real-world visits speaks to the digital transformation of an industry that will likely never go back to its brick-and-mortar-centric pre-COVID days.

Home goods and improvement foot traffic was down 41% compared to 2019 and 26% compared to February, reflecting upward momentum. Here again, the category’s difficulty may reflect the ease of buying its products online. 

But for home and goods retailers as for those in apparel, the enduring post-COVID struggles of brick-and-mortar stores are a call to arms for cutting-edge physical retail marketing strategies. Having reviewed this data, the retailers might consider repurposing physical stores as showrooms or customer experience destinations, knowing that they can move plenty of product online and need extra magic to draw potential customers in-store.

COVID’s Power over US Retail

A review of fall US retail foot traffic data shows just how powerfully COVID has reshaped the industry. While vaccinations are widely available and many Americans appear to have renewed routines resembling those of normal life, brick-and-mortar store visits remain substantially down across industries. That drop reflects the rise of e-commerce as a supplement to in-person shopping but also the imperative that retailers reimagine the role of brick-and-mortar stores in marketing campaigns and sales strategies.

Brick-and-mortar shopping may never fully return to its previous normal, but that does not mean retailers cannot leverage physical space to deepen relationships with customers and drive sales.

The data here marks the beginnings of what the Unacast foot traffic data platform can teach us about the performance of the brick-and-mortar retail industry. Unacast can help brands dive much deeper into the data to identify more granular recommendations. or try Unacast Now to unearth your own insights.


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