According to Springboard’s latest consumer data, while the three months from May to July saw a promising increase in shoppers making trips to retail destinations, August and September have taken a slight decline as consumer confidence falls.
Notably, to help retailers understand the never straight path to recovery, the predictive analytics company has taken monthly consumer surveys throughout the pandemic, which address three key themes: consumer comfort, changes in shopping habits directly due to COVID-19 and working patterns and their impact on consumers’ shopping habits.
Springboard was established in the U.K. in 2002 and expanded into the U.S. in 2014, where the company has expanded its work to deliver real-time shopper insights that enable retail businesses and destination growth.
Springboard’s data finds that 51 percent of consumers are comfortable visiting retail destinations — consistent with August, though slightly declined from 57 percent in July. Still, shoppers told the company they are continuing to shop more locally with nearly 75 percent saying they shop in smaller neighborhood centers more or the same amount as they did before the pandemic.
“There are some themes here, but what we’ve got to do is look to see how whether those themes will continue through 2022,” said Diane Wehrle, marketing and insights director at Springboard. “At the moment, we’re seeing some traffic edging back into city centers but not at the detriment of smaller neighborhood centers, which is a great thing. It means that people are shopping in both.”
In 2021, recovery in pedestrian traffic varies depending not only on the day but the time of day, according to Wehrle.
“We’ve seen if people aren’t working in their offices, that traffic will shift and activity levels will move across the day,” Wehrle said. “And tracking that over time, what we’ve seen already June through August is a better recovery, not significantly different, but a slightly better recovery in the afternoon, and the nighttime versus breakfast. And then what’s happening across the week, well, we can see that traffic is lagging behind on the five working days of the week, Monday through Friday, but stronger on Saturday and Sunday.”
Moreover, Wehrle said, weekends could be poised to become even more resilient as the holiday shopping season gets closer.
In agreement, Anita Lauricella, senior planner for Downtown Boston Business Improvement District, said pedestrian traffic in the area had grown over the summer months with Saturday cited as its highest day. Largely impacting the district has been consumers continuing to work from home, though as more than 14,000 students from local universities return this fall the company is optimistic for a resurgence in traffic.
“We’ve seen a drastic shift for us and people’s behavior, and our retail is sort of trying to accommodate these changes,” Lauricella said. “You know in 2019 with a large office market coming into and out of the office, the times of day that we see people in the district has shifted. We don’t see that classic business pattern of a morning commute, a lunch hour outside and then an evening commute. [Instead, we] basically see a pattern that starts to go up around 10 o’clock and sort peaks at three or four that slowly declines to the evening.”
The highest traffic areas, Lauricella said, where week-over-week growth can be seen consistently have been near the area’s larger department stores like Macy’s, DSW and Home Goods.
In fact, Michael Appel, president of Appel Associates LLC, said some stores have seen big increases with notable differences between malls, outdoor centers and outlets, with higher conversion for those stores in street centers and strip malls. While many of these stores are “destination locations” conversion is still an issue.
“The major shift to online is with us to stay, however, stores are still a huge percentage of total retail sales so we can’t forget the fact that brick-and-mortar will always be with us and will always be strong,” Appel said. “Something that people don’t talk about is the fact that stores generate online customers and generate omnichannel customers who are spending a lot more than single-channel customers. Retailers that understand that are strategizing as to how to take advantage of all of these trends.”
Meanwhile, Ami Ziff, director of national retail at Time Equities, noted that the experience during the pandemic has been very different for the consumers and merchants.
“You know retailers had to navigate to relationships through COVID-19 one with their landlord and one with their consumer from a retailer,” Ziff said. During the pandemic, he said, Time Equities saw just about every disruption come to retailers and he applauded those who were transparent with landlords to find a solution and a way forward.
From her perspective, Lauricella said the BID encouraged retailers to collaborate with landlords to quickly pivot with new needs in mind as soon as possible. “This was a two-way street,” she said of the process of open communication where both the retailer and the landlord.
Still navigating both relationships with consumers is an ongoing struggle.
“Especially post-COVID-19, there’s an emphasis on the store experience, and retailers really have continued to elevate their presence and their customer experience. Customers are expecting better customer service as they’re getting off the couch and driving to your store and in some instances, feeling like they’re exposing themselves. They’re also expecting better inventory management and better checkout processes. The retailer has had to rethink that relationship in that experience that they’re providing to the customer.”
Going forward and looking particularly at the holiday season, Lauricella, Ziff, Appel and Wehrle all said they expect to see continued efforts for great in-person holiday experiences, which will likely include more buy online, pick up in-store, curbside pickup and creative holiday promotions.