Data from Back-to-School Foot traffic indicate a dull holiday season. It’s not so simple


Although there were hopes that the back-to-school season would be a rebound from the year marred by COVID-19’s effects, data from the nation’s largest retailers shows that foot traffic has not been as positive.

The foot traffic between July 5 and Aug. 31 shows that this year’s shopping trends aligned better with those of last year than in the pre-COVID-19 days. Walmart, for example, saw 21.2 million people during the back to school season, 20.3 million in 2017 and almost 30 million in 2018. Target attracted 4.5 million people in 2021, 4.2 millions in 2020 and 6.0 million in 2019. Similar patterns were observed at Kohl’s and The Gap. Only Kmart’s 2021 performance was closer to the 2019 one than the other six retailers Cuebiq studied.

Many may conclude that retailers are doomed to a disappointing holiday season. The highly infectious Delta variant may have caused the hot vax season to cool down faster than expected, and retailers’ foot traffic is unlikely heat up in the time frame for the holidays.

But not so quickly. The data would lead me to different conclusions. These are the expectations for retailers during holidays. How can they prepare for increased in-store sales volume?

Analyze Foot traffic and Virus data in Tandem

It would not be surprising if COVID-19-related infections continued to increase through December. This would make it seem like Delta would also impact holiday shopping in the same way that it has affected back-to school season.

However, the epidemiological situation remains fluid. Late summer’s Delta-fueled epidemic seems to have reached its peak. Data from overseas suggest that infection caused by Delta in countries with high vaccine rates can cause a habit to climb quickly, then drop dramatically.

It’s not clear how severe the COVID epidemic will be in November or how it will impact in-person shopping. Although brick-and-mortar sales are unlikely to rise back to their 2019 levels, it is possible that COVID’s current improvements could increase. A further decline in cases could lead to consumer confidence rising, returning the U.S. back to an environment similar to late spring, when the number of cases was at its lowest level and in-store spending was relatively high.

Retailers must monitor foot traffic data but also the epidemiological data. Foot traffic from yesterday is not necessarily indicative of the future. Foot traffic data can tell us how consumers respond to COVID trends. However, analysts need to interpret that data alongside COVID data to accurately predict whether foot traffic patterns will persist or change, and in what direction.

Lessons from Foot Traffic Data and Retail Insights

It is difficult to predict holiday shopping trends using back-to-school foottraffic. This raises the question of location intelligence’s role as a planning tool for retail.

Foot traffic data can be used to compare a store’s performance with local benchmarks and other competitors. It can be used to analyze seasonality and sales effectiveness, and inform retail planning.

Location intelligence is useless without context. Retail analysts could be led astray if they ignore COVID when analyzing foot traffic data. Regardless of whether COVID is used, foot traffic data cannot be transformed into insight without careful consideration of local cultural and commercial factors that drive trends.

This case study illustrates the importance of approaching foot traffic data with analytic rigor. It is a good example for 2021 back to school data’s implications on the holidays. An uninteresting August does not guarantee a boring November.

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