In this blog, we’re taking a look at 2020 in retrospect – outlining the major phases during the pandemic, and unpacking how consumer behaviors changed during the year in reaction to social distancing. We examined which analyses we can project into 2021 to better understand how things are going to change, how traffic is going to come back to normal, and how to measure demand going forward.

CHART: November Saturdays show 6-month highs

Let’s take a look at the above dataset where we overlay all consumer categories. We can see that they share very similar patterns. It’s important to understand the rhythms and phases that we went through in 2020. By our count, we went through six distinct phases:

Phase 1: Panic & Prepare

During the Panic & Prepare phase, everybody desperately ran out to buy necessities. Traffic to dollar stores, grocery stores, big-box stores, and pharmacies spiked 20% to 50%. Liquor stores similarly jumped as well. If you weren’t a retailer who could help with stocking up, your traffic fell to the floor. The US was divided into two groups – they either rose and then shot down, or skipped the rising part and shot straight down.

Phase 2: Quarantine Routine

After ten days of this Panic & Prepare, most people then stayed home and we saw our lowest traffic sit stable for about three weeks. One of the interesting clues here is this green line, which is super low during the Quarantine Routine. The green line represents foot traffic to nature and outdoor venues, national parks, local parks, beaches, and forest hiking trails. Outdoor activities were avoided almost entirely (even though it would become the default activity later on). This indicates that people were only going out when they had to during the Quarantine Routine. This pattern continued for three weeks.

Phase 3: Reemergence Ramp

When Easter came around, warmer weather and kitchen fatigue played a role in jump-starting the Reemergence Ramp. People realized that businesses were still open (or had alternatives like curbside pickup) and we saw a cluster of restaurant traffic start to go up, beginning with safe, easy, and cheap Fast Food. During this phase, casual restaurants and coffee shops were down 50% to 60% and went up to 80% to 90%.

Phase 4: Summer Slump

After two months of reemergence, everybody pumped the brakes a little bit as cases started to rise again in California, Florida, and other US states. Traffic wasn’t flat yet, but the return to traffic was stalled for most categories.

Phase 5: Fall Flats

The Fall Flats is defined by a lack of movement in any category, which is very flat and unchanging. There are a few spikes mostly due to year-over-year date comparisons. For example, Labor Day fell a week later in 2020 than it did in 2019. In the Fall Flats, we reached a social distancing equilibrium as everything was very stable. During this time, case counts were pretty low and we only started to see them come back at significant levels in November as people begin holiday shopping. This leads us to the last phase – Holiday Hesitation.

Phase 6: Holiday Hesitation

During the 2020 holiday season, travel took an expected hit and retailers came out strong compared to the previous years by changing their promotion strategy and timing. As an example, Best Buy spread out their promotion throughout November, resulting in sales all month versus one large spike around Thanksgiving. Case counts rose again and with certain regulations back in place, this lead to hesitant consumers.

The Importance of Stratification

In addition to the six phases, we see four distinct levels being broken out by these charts. The four levels of location data map very clearly to different trends we saw during the past year in different consumer categories:

  1. First, the ‘over performers’ – nature and outdoor venues, hardware stores, furniture stores, and sport and outdoor goods retailers in general. These categories are focused on the home because people are stuck there, or on the outdoors as that’s viewed as a safe place to go. We saw incredibly increased traffic consistently about 20% higher than norms, and this continues today. This is a shift in consumer preferences that we expect to last.
  2. Next, ‘the resilient’ – grocery stores, big-box stores, fast food, coffee shops, gas stations, and dollar stores. They’ve figured out how to adjust their business and approach differently during the pandemic. They’re essential enough that they continue to get traffic with this modified business practice – and their traffic is stable. Even when the pandemic lowered traffic again in November and December and case counts started to rise, these categories stayed at the same level from June onwards. These businesses are incredibly stable and close to normal traffic, and we expect them to continue to be stable. 
  3. We then have a cluster of categories that are highly affected by what the case counts are doing. We call these ‘the volatile’ – hotels and shopping malls. Once we saw case counts rising again, we saw a break downwards, moving up and down 20% or more (based on what the mood is outside). Another that fits into this category behaviorally is casual dining, noted in light purple. These go up to 70 to 80% of normal levels of traffic when case counts are down, but they shoot downwards when case counts come back up. These are highly dependent on regional variances. 
  4. Lastly, ‘the mirror image of the resilient’ – airports, colleges, office buildings, and public transit, which are consistently empty. Their traffic has been below 50% of normal levels during this entire time and is staying that way. Airports are down severely, and even though we start to see a bit of tourism reemerging, they’re down because business travel is effectively missing in action since offices remain closed. Due to offices remaining closed, we see much less public transit as well.

It has been our goal since we started the Social Distance Tracker in March 2020 to use location data to shed some light on how consumer movement, preferences, and patterns are changing – and to help you anticipate and react to these changes. Using learnings from 2020, we’re powering 2021 strategies. Take a look at our Infographic, Social Distance Tracker: A Year In Review for a timeline and key data points from 2020 to help you plan and strategize. And, keep an eye out for Part 2 for more recommendations from Team PlaceIQ. As always, we want to hear from you! If you have any feedback or questions about this data, please don’t hesitate to reach out to our team.

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