If there’s one question on every brick-and-mortar retailer’s mind right now, it’s when all those desperately needed shoppers will be coming back—and the news out of states that have reopened is good.
Online software platform Zenreach, using its matrix of Wi-Fi access points in stores, has been monitoring foot traffic in all 50 states, from the precipitous falloffs to the return of customers that’s well underway now. In some states, very well: Georgia posted the highest gains of any reopened state, with 52.3% of normal foot traffic as of June 2.
Overall, irrespective of location, the biggest drops in customer traffic at retail stores happened in the middle of March, around the time lockdowns began in earnest and the government hastily commenced placing orders for medical equipment. Foot traffic fell to an anemic 25.2% of what it had been at the same time in 2019.
Then, beginning about a month later in mid-April, traffic began to tick back up, with two states regaining half of their normal foot traffic for this time of year. Here’s a look at the data, which compared foot traffic year-over-year, with the most recent figures as of June 2:
- Georgia issued shelter-in-place orders on April 2 and was the first state to reopen on April 24. Its lowest dip was to 27.3% on April 14, which has rebounded to 52.3%.
- Arizona closed on March 31, and began reopening on May 15. After dipping to 25% on April 19, foot traffic has quickly rebounded to 46.5%.
- Texas advised residents to limit nonessential travel beginning April 2, and hit a low point of 21.7% in late April. Since reopening May 1, traffic is back up to 48%.
- Florida ordered nonessential businesses to close on April 3, and hit a foot traffic low of 19% on April 14. Its phased reopening began May 1, and foot traffic is now at 38%.
It’s a good economic signal for states that were hit harder by Covid-19 and therefore were quicker to shutter businesses and are taking the longest to allow them to reopen—notably California (May 25), New York (June 8) and New Jersey (June 15).
So, aside from retailers in New York having a tougher time right now than, say, those in Georgia, what does this data portend for the coming summer—and for the country as a whole? Overall, said John Kelly, CEO of Zenreach, “we should assume a slow but steady increase in traffic in all the states as they reopen their retail businesses.”
Economic recovery may come at the expense of public health
The data underscores the difficult line that states have had to walk between economic viability and public health—which may not get any easier.
While Texas might be enjoying a return of shopping traffic, Covid-19 has made a resurgence, too. The state’s highest number of hospitalizations, 1,888, was recorded on May 5. That number hit a new high on Monday, with 1,935 people who have tested positive for the coronavirus in hospitals throughout the state, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.
A former Arizona health department director also told the Phoenix New Times that state’s 101% spike in Covid-19 cases between the last week of May and the first week of June is “definitely related” to the decision by Gov. Doug Ducey to reopen businesses.
Another wrinkle in the issue is that, regardless of how quickly customers head back into stores, the return will clearly not come in time to save many of them. This morning, Coresight Research released its latest forecast that predicted up to 25,000 retail units would close this year, a good portion of them (between 50% and 55%) located in shopping malls. The firm’s previous forecast had held that as many as 15,000 stores would close in 2020, and so these latest figures represent a considerable darkening of the picture for brick and mortar.
And what about a complete return to normal foot traffic? Kelly stressed that his firm’s data crunch has only measured conditions out to the end of May but that, anecdotally, some inferences can be made. Assuming an even reopening track (one that is not interrupted by new lockdowns should Covid-19 infection rates unexpectedly spike), Kelly ventures that America’s retailers will see a return to normal levels in early fall—Oct. 3, to be specific. Of course, he added, “that is as good as a finger in the wind.”
And it may be just that. But given the many twists and turns the pandemic has served up thus far, a finger in the wind is probably as good a predictor as anything.