Welcome to the PlaceIQ Social Distance Tracker. 

Last week we showed how vaccinations were probably not behind February’s Second Reemergence. Vaccination rates aren’t correlated with overall activity and less vaccinated counties are more active in general.

This week we can sharpen this insight even further: vaccinations don’t really change behavior but case counts certainly do. February’s Second Reemergence was likely kicked off by rapidly declining case counts from last winter’s surge. Now, we can see rising case counts changing behavior again.

Today we’ll take a look at how increased case counts look to be driving new vaccinations. Then we’ll take a peek at recent travel trends, which are rather different from the Summer escapes we took last year.

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Case Counts Appear to Be Driving New Vaccinations

Case counts are increasing across the United States. Over the last 14 days, figures are up 145%. Fortunately, hospitalizations and deaths (while up) are growing at a much slower rate this time, now that we have vaccines to  dramatically reduce the risk of serious illness.

And thankfully, it appears that increasing case counts are driving increasing vaccination rates.

We were first tipped off to this dynamic by the volume of traffic to pharmacy retailers. Since February, traffic has been up dramatically — often more than 20% above pre-COVID norms — thanks to CVS, Walgreens, and others being distribution points for COVID vaccines. Our most recent figures show the entire retail category regaining some ground, but drug stores outpace the pack. They’ve now eclipsed both hardware and dollar stores to become our number 1 retail category:

Digging in further, we noticed more pronounced pharmacy pops in regions with higher case loads. Here’s Arkansas — whose cases per 100k is 3rd highest in the nation — where visits to casual restaurants have stagnated since May while pharmacy visits are now >60% above their pre-COVID norms:

Sure enough, this trend nicely correlates with a significant uptick in new vaccinations administered in the state, as reported by the CDC. Shots in Arkansas are trending upwards, now more than double their lowest level.

This trend isn’t just confined to Arkansas. As of 7/26, three states have already administered more shots in July than June. By the time you’re reading this, two more states will have passed that milestone. And, if rates stay consistent, at least 7 states will end July with more doses than June, a trend that will hopefully accelerate.

Time and time again, really since last Summer, we’ve seen that case counts are the most important factor in changing consumer behavior. When cases are low, people get more active. When cases are high, people dial it back. Despite their success at reducing overall risk, vaccines haven’t ended this dynamic. They’ve raised the baseline of activity (for example, activity in the San Francisco Bay Area is much higher than it was during last Summer’s similar curve), but they haven’t eliminated the adjustments that come with rising case counts.

All this results in a bittersweet, silver-lining that comes with surging cases: more vaccinations. Those that have chosen to wait or avoid their jab are starting to line up as the risk ticks upward. Hopefully enough of the population joins in to reduce community spread so that we can dampen the impact rising cases counts have on our behaviors and accelerate our return to normal.

Extended Stay Hotels Suffer as Dining Rises

Speaking of changing behaviors, our Summer vacations are slightly different from last year. Despite high gas prices, the road trip remains as relevant as it was last year. Gas station traffic remains skyhigh, even as airports continue to stage their comeback:

Hotels benefit from both these trends and are up nearly 25 points since the start of the Second Reemergence. However, if we dig into the hotel category to peek at the subcategory trends, we can see the growth isn’t evenly distributed:

Here we’re looking at the share of total hotel visits accounted for by a few subcategories. Way back in August of last year we covered how pandemic travelers favored motels and extended stay hotels. Motels were preferred for their proximity to road trip routes, cheap prices, and perceived safety (no common areas, rooms open to the parking lot) while extended stay venues were prized for their kitchenettes which allowed lodgers to avoid restaurants while on the road.

Now take a look at how extended stay venues have faltered since May of this year. Motels continue to eat up share and luxury destinations are staging a comeback, all while extended stay hotels are now below their pre-COVID share of stays.

If we look at their Reemergence Scores, we can see extended stays failing to keep pace with the rest of the category:

With travelers more comfortable visiting restaurants on the road the value of the kitchenette has plummeted. While many households have kept pace with their home cooking even as restaurants reopened, this hasn’t been true on vacation. And extended stay hotels are now on the downswing.

This is a great example of the challenges facing businesses which did well because of COVID. As risks diminish, there’s a chance customers will snap back to their Old Normals, abandoning the businesses they had a fling with during quarantine. Some businesses get lucky and enjoy continued adoption of New Normals — like drive-in theaters, as we covered last month — but others will have to pivot to address a customer base adapting to less risk.

One of my favorite examples of this dance is Dollar General’s new Popshelf concept. We previously wrote about Dollar General’s 2020 success. Their hyperlocal, discount format was perfectly tuned to COVID-driven behavioral adjustments. Anticipating a recovery as COVID receded, Dollar General launched the Popshelf concept to help retain higher-income shoppers who had trialled Dollar General during the quarantine. We’ll see how it fares as the format rolls out, but Popshop is a great example of a retailer changing along with their customer base.

What this looks like for extended stay hotels remains to be seen, but we’ll be keeping an eye on the space.

If your business did well during COVID and is plotting a course for the 2nd half of 2021, we’d love to help. Our Social Distancing audiences are amazing segments for meeting your customers at their preferred level of risk. And our Retain Audiences can help you stay on top of new customers who relied on your business during the heights of COVID. For more information, shoot us a note! We enjoy hearing from you.

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