Back-to-School Foot Traffic Data Indicate a Dull Holiday Season. But it’s Not So Simple
Despite hopes that this year’s back-to-school shopping season would mark a return to form after a year marred by COVID-19, foot traffic data at the nation’s top retailers indicate the season missed optimistic expectations.
Foot traffic from July 5 to Aug. 31 shows that shopping this year aligned more closely with last year’s trends than the pre-COVID-19 days of 2019. For example, Walmart saw 21.2 million visitors during the back-to-school season this year, 20.3 million last year, and nearly 30 million the year prior. Target received 4.5 million visitors in 2021, 4.2 million in 2020, and 6.0 million in 2019. Kohl’s and The Gap experienced similar patterns. Of the six retailers Cuebiq examined, only Kmart’s 2021 performance adhered much closer to that of 2019 than last year’s.
Some may conclude that retailers are destined for a disappointing holiday season. It may seem that the highly infectious Delta variant caused hot vax summer to cool off faster than expected and that retailer foot traffic is unlikely to heat up in time for the holidays.
Not so fast. I would draw different conclusions from the data. Here’s what retailers can expect from the holidays and how they should predict and prepare for in-store shopping volume.
Analyze Foot Traffic and Virus Data in Tandem
If COVID-19 infections were sure to keep increasing through December, it would be fair to surmise that Delta would undermine holiday shopping the same way it seems to have compromised the back-to-school season.
But the epidemiological situation is fluid. The late summer’s Delta-fueled outbreak appears to have passed its peak. What’s more, data from abroad suggest that infections spurred by Delta in countries with high vaccination rates have a habit of climbing quickly and then dropping dramatically.
The upshot is that it's unclear how intense the COVID outbreak will be come November and how it will affect in-person shopping. While it seems likely that brick-and-mortar shopping won't soar back to 2019 levels, the current improvements on COVID could intensify. A further drop in cases could inspire a rebound in consumer confidence, returning the U.S. to a situation more similar to the late spring, when cases were at near-all-time lows and shoppers were comparatively bullish on in-store spending.
The imperative for retailers is to monitor foot traffic data, yes, but to do so in tandem with the epidemiological data available. Yesterday’s foot traffic isn't absolutely predictive of tomorrow’s. Indeed, foot traffic data tell us how consumers are responding to COVID trends, but analysts must interpret that data in tandem with COVID data to predict correctly whether foot traffic patterns are likely to persist or diverge, and in which direction.
Broader Lessons About Foot Traffic Data and Retail Insights
The challenge of predicting holiday shopping trends based on back-to-school foot traffic raises a broader point about location intelligence’s role in retail planning.
Foot traffic data can tell us how a store is performing compared to national benchmarks and local competitors. It can also drive analysis of sales and marketing effectiveness and seasonality, informing retail planning.
However, location intelligence is nothing without context. In this case, analyzing foot traffic data without an eye on COVID could lead retail analysts astray. With or without COVID, analysts cannot transform foot traffic data into insights without due diligence on the local cultural and commercial factors driving trends.
This case study exemplifies the need to approach foot traffic data with analytical rigor — which, for 2021 back-to-school data’s implications for the holidays, is an encouraging lesson. A dull August doesn't ensure a bland November.
Antonio Tomarchio is the founder and CEO of Cuebiq, an offline intelligence and measurement company helping marketers understand the true impact of their cross-channel advertising in the offline world.