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Changes In Food Retail Foot Traffic During COVID-19

With the CDC now reporting over 300,000 COVID-19 cases and shelter-at-home orders issued in 40+ states (as of 4/3), every citizen and sector of the economy is being affected by the epidemic. By analyzing changes in foot traffic across food retail, we can monitor the shifting dynamics of shopping and stockpiling behavior to try to understand what may come next.

Placer.ai collects precise geolocation data across millions of mobile devices and uses it to estimate retail foot traffic (see more at https://www.placer.ai/covid-19/). From their data, we can see an immediate ramp up in year-over-year foot traffic in the period from late-February to mid-March across food retailers. Foot traffic peaked the week of 3/9, particularly on that Thursday and Friday.

The highest comps were in Club Stores and Traditional Grocery stores, with Mass retailers and Specialty Grocers falling behind. This demonstrates that Club and Traditional Grocery are top-of-mind for consumers who are stockpiling necessities. While we can safely assume the bulk of these consumers went in to buy food and household supplies, The NPD Group also reports increased sales in general merchandise categories related to sheltering-at-home: office supplies, toys, consumer tech, and small appliances (link). The prime example is the breadmakers category, which was up +804% in March vs. last year.

After the peak in the week of 3/9, Traditional Grocers mostly stayed above last year’s foot traffic levels for one more week before plunging down to negative comps. (The exception is Wegmans whose foot traffic levels dropped earlier due to its footprint in NY and the surrounding heavily-affected areas). Club retailers (not pictured) followed a similar pattern.

The Mass Channel had much smaller peaks than Traditional Grocery or Club, and both retailers were negative by the week of 3/16. Target declined more quickly than Walmart after the Hoarding stage, perhaps demonstrating Walmart’s status as the food and essentials destination in Mass.

Specialty Grocery had relatively low peaks and the steepest declines during late March. Specialty Grocery stores are usually a destination for add-ons, not bulk buys or household necessities, limiting foot traffic during a Hoarding Phase.

Although results for the last week of March are only available from Monday 3/30-Thursday 4/2, we analyzed Mon-Thurs numbers for the week of 3/30 vs. the prior week to try to understand foot traffic dynamics after the steep declines.

Foot traffic comps from the week of 3/30 show that across most retailers, there have been even further declines in foot traffic from the previous week. However, over this full week Nielsen reports that in-store CPG sales are still $3.2B above where they were last year (link). This could mean larger basket size during less frequent trips and/or fewer family members going on each trip to the store to minimize exposure.

An interesting discovery in these preliminary findings is that while Mon-Thurs foot traffic the week of 3/23 showed minimal or slightly declining trends as the week went on, traffic during the week of 3/30 showed relative growth M-T, with comps becoming less negative as the week went on. If this preliminary trend holds, it could mean one of two things:

  • The foot traffic valley of the week of 3/23 was a result of a post-stockpiling timeout: Having taken a week off and gone through some of their stockpile, consumers then gradually resumed their regular shopping trips, and will establish a new short-term equilibrium in foot traffic and sales. Regular (if reduced) shopping behavior is aided by the extensive steps stores are taking to make shopping safe and convenient, along with the shift in spend from food out-of-home to in-home.
  • The steadily growing comps the week of 3/30 are the result of renewed stockpiling behavior: Messaging from the White House has increased in severity, stressing the importance of sheltering-at-home over the next 2 weeks. On Sunday (4/5), Dr. Deborah Brix, the coronavirus response coordinator, even recommended that people forgo non-essential trips to the grocery store and pharmacy until the number of daily cases peaks. The week’s trends may just represent late adaptors and last-minute trips before truly hunkering down. If that’s the case, the following weeks will again show declining comps in foot traffic.

Whether the renewed growth in foot traffic holds or bottoms out, the next few months will be very uncertain. How will conditions vary for grocers across channels? What measures and innovations can retailers keep implementing to minimize disruptions to their business? How will medical and epidemiological factors play a role? The 2nd week of March saw an 85% growth in online CPG sales- can ecommerce and logistical networks keep up with demand?

We will continue to monitor the situation from every angle we can and will publish updates accordingly. The next few weeks will be crucial for people and businesses across the world. Our retail experts at McMillanDollittle (https://www.mcmillandoolittle.com/our-retail-experts/) and our worldwide partners in the Ebletoft Group (https://www.ebeltoftgroup.com/) are happy to provide perspective and guidance during these difficult times.

Emerson Delgado

Emerson Delgado

edelgado@mdretail.com

Emerson provides day-to-day support for McMillanDoolittle projects across the board, from strategic planning and digital transformation to consumer insights and experience design. He draws on direct experience in the Home and Home Improvement industries as well as in consumer and market research.

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