Shop ‘Til You…
The beginning of 2020 was shaping up to be a great year for shopping. In-store traffic was at record highs as consumers continued to reap the benefits of one of the longest bull markets in modern history. Nationwide, shopper traffic to retail locations through February was up several percentage points compared to the previous year.
Then in March, as it became clear that containment of the virus would require drastic action, state and local governments began to wrestle with stay-at-home orders and consumer shopping patterns changed. Some jurisdictions—like New York City—saw the effects of the virus early, and the impact on in-store shopping was immediate. By the end of the first week of March, the New York metro area had already started to see declines in retail foot traffic. By March 23, when the New York State lockdown was issued, New York City foot traffic had dropped by 75% from the previous year.
By contrast, Mardi Gras-inspired New Orleans let the good times roll a little longer. The city was still seeing year-over-year increases through mid-March. However, during the third week of March, New Orleans started to see similar declines as New York, and by March 30, their in-store walk-ins were down almost 80% from the previous year.
Now, as states and cities have begun easing their restrictions, shoppers are starting to return to stores. Georgia, for example, which reopened its retail businesses on April 24, has seen retail traffic climb 65% since that then. But even with these increases, shoppers are still wary of strolling into their corner store. (One month after opening for business, in-store traffic in Georgia is still way below historical highs and remains at roughly 51% of the peaks in late February.)
Elaine Brubacher, a 79 year-old retiree, is one consumer who has completely altered her shopping behavior. Before COVID-19, she used to go shopping twice a week. Now, she says, “I don’t go out.” She has limited her shopping to once every ten days, and only for the necessities: “I’m not doing any shopping other than what is absolutely necessary—the grocery store or the pharmacy. I’m not comfortable with ‘general shopping.’”
Elaine is not alone. Consumer concerns about the possibility of catching or spreading this invisible disease via social contact are at all-time highs. While many merchants have taken steps to make their locations safer—installing partitions, sanitizing shopping carts, disinfecting pens—many shoppers are still wary of other shoppers.
From that point of view, the safest times to shop are when retailers have the fewest number of shoppers. That’s when the incidence of unintended social contacts is at its lowest.
When are those hours? Sundays before 11am.
Across the retail set as a whole, Sunday is the slowest day of the week, with about 20% fewer shoppers in stores than on other days. Friday is usually the busiest day of the week when crowds are up to 10% higher than Saturday and Thursday (the second and third busiest days). During this crisis, even though overall in-store traffic numbers are down dramatically, these traffic pattern trends have held steady.
In the New York/New Jersey area specifically, shoppers don’t get going until about two hours later on Sunday than during the week, which means the hours between 8am and 11am are the best bets for social distancing. In fact, you are likely to find almost 40% fewer people in a store at 9am on a Sunday than you would at 9am on a Friday.
The times to avoid shopping are during the week between the hours of noon and 7pm. This is when retail locations are their busiest. During the week, evenings are usually busier than mornings, but you want to get there before 9am. Nonetheless, if you want to pick up a few things mid-week after work and want to minimize your social contact risk, you may want to head out Thursdays after 7pm. Thus far in May, we have seen some slight traffic dips during that time that did not exist before the lockdown orders were in place.
As we move toward a new normal of extra precautions and social distancing, it will be interesting to see how consumers adjust their shopping patterns. The data is already showing that consumers are capable of adapting quickly.
John Kelly is the CEO of Zenreach, the Walk-Through company which is helping merchants connect the online and offline world through in-store WiFi and digital marketing.