An Inside Look: Supply Chain, Consumer Spending, and Retail Foot Traffic

View supply chain at major U.S. ports alongside our index of consumer spending and in-person retail foot traffic for major industries.

An Inside Look: Supply Chain, Consumer Spending, and Retail Foot Traffic

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Unacast created a holistic view of complications at U.S. ports and combined it with an index of consumer behavior for both in-person retail visitation and spending. With our newest dashboard, you’ll be able to answer questions about whether or not the supply chain is seeing improvements alongside graphs of year-by-year changes in foot traffic and consumer spending that offer implications for how consumer behavior has changed between 2019 and 2021.  

  • What does consumer behavior look like in a world still preoccupied by a pandemic? 
  • Is the supply chain affecting spending and foot traffic across major industry categories? 
  • How has spending changed over the course of the pandemic, and are we seeing any permanent behavioral changes in consumers? 

Unacast utilized public record data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics and the Census Bureau, along with our proprietary foot traffic trends, to answer these questions. View our workbook here to explore for yourself, or see screen-shots below.

[Interested in examining foot traffic across major U.S. business types? Talk to a Unacast representative today about how we can help you build the up-to-date consumer insights that will expand your business!] 

Our ports dashboard is an in-depth look at imports, exports, and empty containers for 11 major U.S. ports. We examined port activity between January 2019 and November 2021 for the three highest-import locations: the Ports of Long Beach, Los Angeles, and New York/New Jersey. 

For 2021, we added all major U.S. port locations through December, for those ports where December data is currently available. The volume of import and export containers is only part of the story, with the percentage of empty containers serving as an essential barometer of supply chain strain. 

Empty containers occupy the chassis needed by delivery trucks to get items on their way to national retail locations. A high level of empties at a port prevents imported goods from reaching their final destinations. Additionally, worker shortages at ports reduce the processing time for incoming and outgoing containers. The arrival of the Omicron variant across the globe will undoubtedly add extra complications to improving the supply chain. 

The Port of Long Beach saw a 28% increase in empty containers in 2021 compared to 2019 levels (equal to 3,082,899 total empty containers versus 4,223,161 total imported containers), with total imported containers increasing 6% in 2020 and 12% in 2021 compared to 2019 levels. 

The Ports of Los Angeles and New York/New Jersey are not far behind Long Beach. These ports saw a 2% and 4% 2020 import increase, respectively, and compared to 2019 levels, they each saw a 9 and 11% increase in 2021. As for empty containers, the rate of empties in 2021 compared to 2019 was 27% for Los Angeles and nearly 24% for New York/New Jersey. 

The busiest ports saw no reduction in shipping container strain toward the close of 2021. 

The image above shows part of our port health dashboard with ratio of import, export, and empty containers by port across 2021.
The image above shows part of our port health dashboard with container volume and container type by port.

December 2021 data was available for the Ports of Charleston, Virginia, Vancouver, and Boston. Charleston saw its highest import and empty ratios in July of 2021, with easing afterward, but their December data indicates an increasing level of empty containers again. Is this an effect of the Omicron variant? 

This did not occur for the Port of Vancouver, which saw an increased ratio of imports but a reduction in its percentage of empty containers compared to November figures. We’ll update full November and December port figures as soon as they become available. Sign up here to receive updates when they’re ready. 

With ports still heavily burdened, let’s look at how major consumer industries have been impacted pre-pandemic and through the end of 2021. Unacast combined Census Bureau consumer spending figures for in-person retail, which we adjusted for inflation, with foot traffic data for all major industries to derive an index of industry health from January 2019 through November 2021. 

With our index, you can determine which industries have dominated post-pandemic consumer attention, which ones haven’t yet recovered from the impact of COVID-19, and also the industries least impacted by consumer restrictions. Strong outlooks displayed in tones of blue indicate high levels of traffic and spending, whereas the Weak end of our index in orange and red tones indicate low spending and low traffic. 

The image above shows a portion of our industry health dashboard.

Which industries have come out on top post-pandemic compared to their pre-pandemic performance?

Spending on Automobiles, Building Materials and Garden Equipment, Furniture and Home Furnishings Stores, and Sporting Goods/Hobby saw 20% increases between the period of January to November in 2021 compared to 2019 levels, with spending up for all major industries except Gifts/Souvenirs and Office Supplies.

Spending and traffic data indicate Automobile Dealers and Automotive Parts, Accessories, and Tire Stores have exceeded 2019 averages in 2021 with Stable and Healthy outlooks, respectively, as of October 2021. The most recent November 2021 consumer spending and traffic data show Automobile Dealers are in a Marginal bordering on Weak position in 2021 compared to 2019, though Automotive Parts, Accessories, and Tire Stores are still exceeding November 2019 levels with a Stable outlook.

With more consumers moved away from urban hubs and public transportation, purchasing motor vehicles and their accessories have become a strong consumer focus. (Stay tuned for our evaluation of Tesla performance compared to other brand-name automobile manufacturers. Where is Tesla dominating the landscape, and how far will visitors go to visit a Tesla location?)

Which business type stayed healthy during the peak pandemic in 2020? 

Building Materials and Gardening Equipment saw a 14% increase in consumer spending and a 6% increase in foot traffic during 2020, while Clothing stores saw revenue loss of 24% and traffic loss of 37% in the same period.

Building Materials, Garden Equipment, and Supplies Dealers took the top prize for sustained health between March and August 2020, as consumers focused heavily on their indoor and outdoor spaces, forced to work from home and revamp their environments like never before.

This trend appears relatively stable in 2021, especially when compared to the industry outlook in 2019.

Sporting Goods, Hobby, Musical Instrument, and Book Stores also saw a nearly 7% increase in consumer spending in 2020, though traffic dropped by 30%, indicating fewer visitors were spending more on these goods per visit. Traffic’s still down for 2021, while spending has continued to increase. 

What industry remains strong in all three years?

August back-to-school shopping for Office Supplies and Stationary never waned, even mid-pandemic, between 2019 and 2021, showing above-average spending and traffic for all three years.

Additional pandemic winners include Christmas boosts in Clothing and Clothing Accessories, Department Stores, Electronics Stores, Sporting Goods, Hobby, Musical Instrument, and Book Stores, though November 2019 industry outlook for these industries was Healthy and Strong versus Stable in 2021, suggesting spending and traffic may not have totally recovered this year.

Electronics especially bordered on Marginal and Weak outlooks across 2021, versus Healthy and Strong showings in the 2019 winter period. It’s possible chip shortages caused by supply chain strain may have contributed to this change. 

[We’ll update December 2021 numbers as soon as they’re available. Sign up to be alerted once we’ve updated our dashboard.]  

Have there been any permanent changes in consumer behavior post-pandemic?

Unacast examined normalized consumer spending and foot traffic figures across industries between January 2019 and November 2021 (top graph). We also normalized volumes for an apples-to-apples comparison based on January to November in 2019 and 2021 to compare consumer behavior without pandemic lulls (bottom graph).

The image above normalized spending and traffic values between 2019 and 2021.
The image above shows condensed spending and traffic values from Jan-Nov 2019 in the Gift sector.
The image above shows condensed spending and traffic values from Jan-Nov 2021 in the Gift sector.

Winners for traffic and spending match our industry index. Automobile Dealers show above-average spending and traffic increases in 2021 compared to 2019. Consumers are shopping and spending across the year from March through November compared to higher browsing behavior but below-average spending seen in 2019. 

Traffic exceeded spending in March 2021 for Automotive Parts and Accessories, indicating possible supply chain strain as consumers showed high shopping activity, but comparatively fewer realized sales, though spending was still above-average compared to 2019 and 2020. 

Our port health dashboard indicates the supply chain reached a severe level of strain starting in March 2021, and our data indicates a clear trickle-down effect of port complications impacting the relationship between foot traffic and consumer spending.

Spending on Clothing and in Department Stores show higher-than-average levels for Q4 2021 compared to the same time in 2019, though foot traffic is on a decreasing slant. Above-average spending for Clothing starts in March 2021 and is sustained through November compared to 2019 levels, suggesting consumers are making purchases month by month rather than bulk buying close to the holidays. 

Is this a sign of supply chain panic in 2021? It’s possible consumers purchased items far in advance of the winter holiday season in order to avoid supply shortages.

The image above shows condensed spending and traffic values from Jan-Nov 2019 in the Clothing sector.
The image above shows condensed spending and traffic values from Jan-Nov 2021 in the Clothing sector.

Consumer behavior for Electronics shows similar patterns of sustained, above-average spending throughout 2021, but spending is much lower for this industry compared to the others in our set, potentially due to the particular impact of chip shortages on Electronics sales. Traffic exceeded spending in March 2021 and showed a continued downward trend starting in May 2021. Did supply shortages in March drive traffic down in this industry as consumers went home empty-handed? 

The image above shows condensed spending and traffic values from Jan-Nov 2019 for the Electronics sector.
The image above shows condensed spending and traffic values from Jan-Nov 2021 for the Electronics sector.

Though consumer spending figures for December 2021 haven’t been released yet, Unacast offers foot traffic values within four days of visitation for the industries featured in this workbook. We examined November and December traffic volumes in 2019 and 2021 to determine which industries are drawing consumer interest during an undoubtedly fraught holiday season. 

The image above shows part of our traffic graph indicating traffic between 2019 and 2021 for November (orange) compared to December (green).

Automobile Dealers and Automotive Parts and Accessories saw small drops in December foot traffic and experienced reduced traffic counts overall compared to the same period in 2019. Clothing and Clothing Accessories Stores experienced a nearly 50% drop in traffic during 2021 compared to 2019, though by pandemic standards it performed well as an industry overall, with increased December traffic compared to November. 

No industry in our set outperformed its 2019 figures. Clothing, Department Stores, Gift, and Sporting Goods saw increases between November and December of 2021, experiencing slight holiday boosts.

December spending figures from the Census Bureau will offer a complete picture, but we can assess from traffic figures that it’s likely the continued impact of the pandemic will delay foot traffic improvements for the time being.

Final Observations

Traffic was down but spending was up in 2021. (Spending that can’t be accounted for by our inflation-adjusted figures.) Consumer behavior has shifted from the “just-browsing” foot traffic seen in 2019, to dollars spent in 2021, even though traffic is below average for a majority of 2021. It seems the post-pandemic consumer no longer visits stores without a purchase in mind. 

The pandemic and beleaguered supply chain haven’t impacted overall spending, with above-average amounts seen in the Automobile, Sporting Goods, and Used Merchandise industries. Consumer spending is also sustained throughout the year. With stores experiencing supply shortages, consumers appear to be buying what they can, when they can. And they’re spending more overall compared to 2019. 

Not all industries have recovered from the pandemic and its associated supply chain strain. A strong push for automobiles earlier in 2021 appears to have waned in the latter part of the year. Additionally, Electronics Stores had an overall reduced outlook in 2021 compared to 2019. 

Stay tuned for updates to our supply chain dashboards for December spending data. And of course, Unacast will continue to monitor U.S. ports, spending, and traffic well into 2022.

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