Since the COVID-19 outbreak began, numerous articles have been published showing how foot traffic to various locations has changed. Using location data from mobile devices, organizations as diverse as the news media, governments, and technology providers have shown how consumer behavior has been affected by stay-at-home orders.
Most of these articles have shone a light on large segments of the economy, providing insights into macro-trends and general behavior. This article takes an up-close look at foot traffic to what may be the most critical of essential businesses: grocery stores.
Of all the types of stores allowed to stay open during the lockdown — restaurants, banks, gas stations to name just a few — none are further out on the front lines than grocery stores. Grocery stores are crucial during the quarantine and will remain so as areas of the retail economy reopen and as we enter into a recovery period. Grocers are especially adept at making and executing contingency plans in the event a disaster strikes, involving coordination with myriad producers, distributors and wholesalers throughout the supply chain. It is no small task keeping eggs, milk, butter and bread in stock and on the shelves of your local supermarket.
To provide insight into how foot traffic to grocery stores around the country has been affected by COVID-19, we analyzed Reveal Mobile’s anonymized, aggregated location data from tens of millions of mobile devices in the U.S. between March 1 and April 15, the period that includes the most dramatic and aggressive lockdown measures that have been put in place year to date.
As an index, wherever needed, we used average foot traffic for the 45 days immediately prior to this period. As an example, a grocer’s typical foot traffic was calculated by averaging the number of daily visits between January 15 and February 29, 2020. We then analyzed March and April foot traffic on a daily basis, which allowed us to see material changes and when exactly these changes began and ended within the period.
We also analyzed foot traffic to grocery stores in two U.S. cities of similar population sizes: Houston, where the outbreak has been less severe; and Chicago, where the outbreak has been more pronounced.
The high point for foot traffic to grocery stores in the U.S. during the COVID-19 pandemic was March 15, when stores saw a 17 percent jump in visits from the start of the month. Two days prior to that peak, on March 13, the U.S. declared a national emergency. A number of states had begun to wind down retail and hospitality operations, while also canceling events involving more than 50 people. Foot traffic to grocery stores then declined significantly from the peak on March 15, dropping 66 percent over the following 30 days.
Even with that precipitous decline, several grocery chains have been effective in retaining their customers through the COVID-19 outbreak. United Supermarkets in Texas, Food Giant in the South, Country Market in the Midwest and Foodland in Hawaii have kept shoppers coming back consistently even as visits to grocers across the country declined steadily through the end of March and into April.
The grocery chains that saw the greatest decline in foot traffic compared to their January/February average visits per store were Bravo Supermarkets along the East Coast, Stop & Shop in the northeastern U.S., The Fresh Market in the eastern part of the country.
The stores with the highest overall foot traffic from March 1 through April 15 are Gristedes Supermarkets, a chain that covers Manhattan, and Food Emporium, a chain of stores in New York and New Jersey.
A Tale of Two Cities
We also analyzed how grocery store foot traffic has been affected in two U.S. cities, one where the outbreak has been especially acute, Chicago, and one where the infection rate has been relatively low, Houston.
Chicago Grocery Stores
The city of Chicago, with a population of 2.7 million people, has been hit hard by the coronavirus. As of early May, more than 25,000 cases have been reported and more than 1,000 people have died from the infection, a 4 percent mortality rate.
Five grocery chains in Chicago have seen the highest volume of daily foot traffic during the lockdown: Costco; Kroger; Mariano’s Fresh Market; Trader Joe’s; and Food 4 Less.
Of the top five chains in terms of overall foot traffic, Trader Joe’s and Costco saw only modest increases in visits compared to their average foot traffic volume. It’s likely that Jewel-Osco, ALDI and Whole Foods pulled shoppers away from those two brands.
While those stores served more Chicago shoppers overall from March 1 through April 15, several other grocery chains across Chicago have been successful in surpassing their average daily visit number during the same period. Jewel-Osco, ALDI and Whole Foods were most effective at increasing visits to their stores between March 1 and April 15.
Not long after March 15, Jewel-Osco stores installed plexiglass guards at cash registers, service desks, and pharmacy checkout counters. The store also put tape on the floor to indicate social distancing guidelines for customers. These additional protective measures may have led to more store visits and increased consumer trust in the brand.
Houston Grocery Stores
The city of Houston, with a population of 2.3 million people, has been affected less severely than Chicago. As of early May, nearly 7,000 cases have been reported and 140 people have died, a 2 percent mortality rate.
The grocery chains in Houston that saw the highest volume of daily foot traffic during the lockdown include Costco, Sam’s Club, Central Market and Kroger.
Those four grocery chains were the most visited from March 1 to April 15, and Kroger was far and away the most effective at increasing its visit volume for the 45-day period compared to its average.
Fiesta Mart, H-E-B and Food Town also saw nearly double the volume of foot traffic during the lockdown than they typically see. Sam’s Club and Costco were less effective in growing their number of visits, though both chains already had a large portion of the shopper population. Fiesta Mart, H-E-B and Food Town held fifth, sixth and seventh place, respectively, for overall foot traffic to Houston grocery stores.
A Quick Look at Costco
Visits to Houston Costco stores, of which there are seven, have exceeded visits to Chicago Costco stores by a factor of two. Even though there are five Costco stores in Chicago — two fewer than in Houston — it’s clear that the less severe outbreak in Houston enabled more people to shop at the most visited grocery chain in that city.
Needless to say, foot traffic volume at grocery stores across the U.S. is in flux, especially with some states implementing a phased reopening of retail stores and consumer-oriented businesses.
If you have any questions about the store visit data in the post, please contact us.
This story is also published in StreetFight