Welcome to the 9th edition of the PlaceIQ Social Distance Tracker.

For a lot of us, it would be fair to say that Easter caught us off guard. With the usual family and neighborhood get-togethers canceled (and time becoming increasingly fuzzy), many of us here at PlaceIQ (of those who celebrate) were reminded about the holiday with just enough time to run out for supplies and some celebratory fixings. Our foot traffic data shows we were not alone.

In this tracker, we’ll take a look at how a shelter-in-place holiday affected traffic trends. We’ll also find a few bright spots and look at how we might see foot traffic return to a semblance of normal. Happy holidays to all those celebrating this month.

We are gratified to see our analyses being included in various reports, since it is our goal to contribute to the #dataforgood effort. If you choose to re-use one of our analysis, all we ask is that you attribute the analysis or content to PlaceIQ. Thank you!

Even During Quarantine, Holidays Still Drive Demand

In previous issues, we discussed how the rhythm of the workweek drives the dominant traffic patterns of foot traffic. Historically, our data shows that people tend to dine out most between Thursday and Saturday, do the bulk of their shopping on the weekend, etc. 

Prior to COVID-19, this weekly rhythm was only disrupted by holidays and severe weather (and even then, only regionally). With little effort, you could pick out the holidays on an unlabeled chart of foot traffic: commercial traffic builds up as the holiday approaches then plummets as we all celebrate with our friends and families.

During the Prepare and Panic phase, the ten days when we all stocked up and retreated to our homes, the weekly routine was nowhere to be seen. Slowly, we built a new rhythm, a Quarantine Routine, that echoed our past weekday behaviors albeit at a much lower volume.

Easter was our first major post-COVID holiday. In our last issue, we saw grocery store traffic tracking back up to only single digit declines vs. pre-COVID norms. Was this a sign that essential business traffic volume might return to pre-COVID norms? Or was this uptick the usual holiday lead-in, transposed to our Quarantine Routine? As the data arrived it became clear Easter was in fact the driver:

Chart Key
CHART: Grocery Foot Traffic

Even in the Quarantine Routine, holidays create their usual (though muted) foot traffic pattern. We can clearly see traffic to grocery tick up in the three days before Easter, which landed on 4/12. The three-day lead-in we saw this year is a day shorter than the lead-in we saw in 2019.

Easter demand wasn’t limited to grocery stores. Big box stores saw significant lift as well:

Chart Key
CHART: Big Box Foot Traffic

But perhaps the biggest gains were earned by restaurants capable of providing packages of Easter fare, as we see when we evaluate Fast Casual restaurant brands. Boston Market had a day:

CHART: % Change in Foot Traffic Volume vs. Pre-COVID Norms, Among Fast Casual Restaurants

The Easter spike for Boston Market is only half the story in that chart. If you squint, you can see a general rise in foot traffic to most brands following Easter Sunday. As we dug deeper, we discovered something quite surprising… 

Dining Gains Ground in the Fourth Week of Quarantine Routine

Since the first edition of this newsletter, we’ve been watching the dining sector closely. As consumers surged to grocery and big box stores to stock up, dining was doubly hit: not only were people starting to stay home, but they were doing so with a refrigerator full of fresh food to cook. In our early days of shelter-in-place, dining was the first essential business to find the foot traffic floor. 

As we learned how to live while social distancing, local restaurants shifted to pick up and delivery distribution. This raised foot traffic a bit, but not significantly. Here, dining traffic stalled for more than two weeks. 

In week four, things changed:

CHART: % Change in Foot Traffic Volume vs. Pre-COVID Norms, 7-Day Moving Average

In the chart above, we’re looking at a 7-day moving average to smooth out weekly spikes and troughs. This view allows us to more clearly spot longitudinal trends. We’ve included hotels, and public transit to illustrate that people are still staying close to home: these metrics are stable. 

And, dining is up! Fast Food is 8 points off it’s April low and Fast Casual and Casual restaurants are 7 and 5 points off, respectively. These numbers aren’t huge, but taken together it’s a major shift from the stagnation of the previous 2 weeks. 

But why is dining trending upwards? Are people getting tired of cooking? Have their initial stores been depleted? Are they getting complacent with their social distancing? Or are they – and restaurants – learning how to conduct business in a safe way? 

While the jury is still out, we can see a hint of an answer when we break down traffic by region. In the last week, we’ve been building baselines and feeds for monitoring how and when foot traffic returns in regions across America. We looked to one of these feeds to see if they could explain the dining trends we’re witnessing. 

Here are traffic trends to McDonalds, broken out by several metropolitan areas:

CHART: % Change in Foot Traffic Volume to McDonald's Restaurants vs. Pre-COVID Norms, by DMA, 7-Day Moving Average

Seattle was the first metropolitan area with significant COVID-19 clusters. We can see traffic to McDonald’s dropped in Seattle ahead of all the other markets listed above (Despite not having shelter-in-place orders until March 23rd! Remember: cultural cues trump bureaucratic orders.) Since then, Seattle has managed to flatten their curve and growth is rapidly getting under control. Over the last three weeks, from 4/18, foot traffic to Seattle area McDonald’s has increased by 10 points off their pre-COVID norms. 

While correlation does not equal causation, this ‘green shoot’ in Seattle raises the possibility that traffic to dining may continue to increase regionally as local case growth slows and as restaurants and citizens better adapt to safely social distancing while picking up meals. We will certainly continue to monitor this hopeful situation.

Traffic metrics for retail, auto, pharmacy, work life, and more are available for download below.

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