Welcome to the PlaceIQ Social Distance Tracker. 

By now it’s clear the road back to ‘normal’ will be indirect. The spike in activity at the end of February has softened as the first burst of enthusiasm wanes. At the same time, the growth of Delta and an uptake in cases — especially in less vaccinated areas — has spurred growing caution.

CHART: Reemergence Index-Category Indices
As you can see in the above chart, most lines have turned downwards in the past week or two. If we take a look at the daily 7-day moving average change this movement is more apparent:
TABLE: Change in 7-Day Moving Average Foot Traffic Volumes 1&2

For nearly all categories, traffic is declining at an increasing rate. We’ll keep watch on this over the next few days to see if the trend holds, but for now it’s safe to assume that our ‘Second Reemergence’ has ended. Call it a July 4th hangover, if you’d like. We made it to that milestone, had our celebration, and now are taking a wait-and-see approach.

There’s a few exceptions to this trend, at least for now:

TABLE: Change in 7-Day Moving Average Foot Traffic Volumes 3
Traffic to offices and the travel sector is stable to up. However, these categories change course like battleships: slowly. Plans are made in advance and once booked, we’re less likely to give them up. Time will tell if this stability is real or if we’ll pause a bit to see how Delta grows.

Today we’re going to take a look at how PlaceIQ is monitoring our ‘Return to 1.0’. As we said at the top, and have seen throughout, the path to normal — or a score of 1.0 — will not be a straight line. To monitor reemergence effectively we need to look at it a couple different ways. We’re excited to share that with you below.

We’ll also take a look at behavioral differences between high vaccinated and low vaccinated counties, and how to account for these counter-intuitive trends.

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!

Return to 1.0: Charting the Comeback

Our Reemergence Index is a ratio of daily foot traffic to same-day figures in 2019, our pre-pandemic year. For example, a score of 0.9 means traffic is 90% of what it was on the same day in 2019. And while a few categories have occasionally touched or regularly exceeded a score of 1.0, most categories have been below 1.0 since March, 2020.

Complicating issues is that regional traffic variation has remained quite high! Even when looking at state-by-state variation (county-level variation is always more dramatic), our Second Reemergence ranged significantly across the nation. If we’re going to adequately monitor our Return to 1.0 we need to take into account regional variation as well as national trends.

Given the above, we’ve constructed the following plot to provide an at-a-glance snapshot of our current state:

CHART: The Return to 1.0 - Retail and Gas Stations Lead the Way
This is our Return to 1.0 chart. Let’s walk through it.

Each bar presents the current, trailing 7-day average foot traffic figure compared to same-day 2019 figures.

gray   If a bar is gray, the national score is less than 1.0. It has not regained its 2019 national traffic. A bar has a non-gray color if the national score is above 1.0.

purple   If a bar is purple, its national score is above 1.0 but isn’t above 1.0 in all 50 states.

green   The bar is green if the national score and scores in all 50 states are above 1.0.

circles   Each circle represents a state where the score is above 1.0.

To show you how many states are currently above 1.0 we’ve included circles in each line. This allows us to see how categories are consistent or lopsided across regions.

For example, check out the Airport and Hotel bars. The national scores there are pretty healthy — 0.85 and 0.91 respectively — but this performance is incredibly lopsided. Only a handful of states for each category are above the 1.0 mark. A few states are driving all of the performance.

We’ll keep updating this chart until (hopefully) everything goes green, highlighting big movements as we take steps forward or backward towards normalcy. Recovery isn’t decreasing our behavioral complexity yet; the road to recovery isn’t a straight line. Keeping tabs on performance nationally and by state will help us gauge progress with nuance, but without data overload.

Are Less Vaccinated Counties Slowing Activity?

Not exactly. When our Second Reemergence kicked off, we speculated there were several reasons for the explosion of foot traffic. In addition to improving weather, dramatically declining case counts, economic stimulus, and quarantine fatigue we thought increased vaccinations helped kick things off.

But the notion that vaccines were driving activity was always a bit questionable to us, at least compared to the other candidate causes. In late February, vaccinations were still mostly constrained to those over 65+ and were only just starting to scale up.

CHART: Vaccination Rates Do Not Correlate wit Increased Visitation

Looking at the above, it’s crystal clear that increasing vaccination rates were not driving increased foot traffic. Other forces, specifically dramatically declined case counts, fueled the enthusiasm we saw during the Second Reemergence.

This disconnect had been gnawing at us for a bit. To understand if and how vaccinations were driving more activity we decided to compare the behaviors of highly vaccinated counties to less vaccinated ones. What we found surprised us:

CHART: June 2021 Foot Traffic vs June 2019 Foot Traffic
What we’re looking at here is a comparison between traffic figures in June 2021 compared to June 2019. The blue bars represent consumer movement in the least vaccinated counties and the purple bars represent the most vaccinated counties. As you can see, less vaccinated counties are more active than highly vaccinated counties, when compared to their pre-pandemic benchmark.

Vaccines are not a silver bullet which snaps people back to their pre-pandemic behaviors.

Rather, higher vaccination rates are a sign that a county is more cautious. This is supported further when we look at which categories have the biggest behavioral differences. Overall, retail foot traffic figures are largely the same in vaxxed and less-vaxxed counties. Dining, on the other hand, is remarkably different. There’s a 27 point difference in recovery when we look at buffets, 24 points for coffee shops, and 12 for fast food and casual restaurants. And fast casual restaurants are completely flipped! In highly vaxxed counties, fast casual is down 13% compared to 2019 but up 10% in less vaxxed counties.

This is a crucial insight to note as we plot our route back to normal: don’t think of vaccinations as a silver bullet which immediately reverses people’s behaviors. Vaccination rates are more reliably interpreted as a marker indicating a community’s shared caution.

How can we use this information to better navigate 2021?

For starters, if you’re in a category which is cautiously avoided by well-vaccinated communities you can’t count on vaccination rates to save you. The weirdness of this pandemic will last longer for verticals like the restaurant industry, while we wait to see how cautious counties migrate back to normal (if they do at all!) From a media perspective, our audiences can help here. Our Reemergence Audiences, which segment individual households by their embrace or avoidance of specific categories, should be used copiously to segment your campaign by your audience’s caution. Remember: success in 2020 came to companies who met their customers at their preferred level of risk. What we’re seeing above suggests it would be wise to continue this strategy in 2021.

We’re also launching a new audience to help with our current context: County Vaccination Audiences. Using open data, we can segment counties by their current vaccination rate into high, medium, and low vaccination clusters. We then find devices and households which live in each county cluster and roll them into the associated audience. This audience is killer for the travel and entertainment industry, who can use them to identify audiences more likely to be vaccinated. And as we saw above, this could be a crucial segment for the dining industry.

If you’d like to learn more about our County Vaccination Audiences, or chat with us about second half media strategies for 2021, we’d love to connect. Reach out to your PlaceIQ rep or sales@placeiq.com.

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We joined up with Shopkick to look at how retail is changing from a location and consumer survey perspective.
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