Follow the Facts: Using Location Intelligence to Plan for Economic Recovery

Gravy Analytics - Economic Activity by City and State Dashboards

By Rick Braddock, Executive Chairman of Gravy Analytics

I am pleased to introduce Gravy Analytics’ latest economic activity dashboards. These online dashboards let anyone easily explore U.S. foot traffic trends by city or state, and illustrate exactly how U.S. consumer behavior has changed throughout the pandemic—starting from the beginning and continuing through the present day. The data can also be filtered by place category— Accommodations, Entertainment, Shopping, and so forth—to provide even deeper insight into changing consumer behavior and differences by city, state, and region. Foot traffic data is now shown monthly from Feb 2020 through Jan 2021, making it easy to compare changes in consumer behavior since the start of the pandemic and soon, year-over-year. 

A few of my initial takeaways:

The massive shift to digital means that the economy (as a whole) will recover more quickly than the physical world. With more shopping and services taking place online, foot traffic at commercial places of interest will recover more slowly and probably stabilize at lower levels than pre-pandemic. The chart below illustrates foot traffic trends nationally; as shown, foot traffic in December 2020 remained 29% lower compared to February 2020. Following a steep decline at the onset of COVID-19, foot traffic began to recover, at first significantly and then more slowly, over subsequent months. This recovery has since declined, then leveled-off, in the wake of a second surge.

However, not all place categories have recovered foot traffic equally. Consumer foot traffic in categories like Shopping and Outdoors & Recreation has recovered significantly more than in other categories. Places in the category of Accommodations, Arts, Entertainment, Schools, and Transportation welcomed less than half of the foot traffic in December than they did in February 2020.

States show marked differences in consumer behavior and foot traffic recovery. Data for several states show extraordinary differences in foot traffic, suggesting (perhaps unsurprisingly) that states’ individual policies have a very real effect on their residents’ activities. The chart below shows foot traffic trends for selected states, including Florida, Illinois, California, and the District of Columbia, compared to the national average of -29%. At both ends of the spectrum, the states of Arkansas and Mississippi boasted foot traffic just -2% lower in December than in February 2020, while foot traffic in the District of Columbia and California remained 55% and 66% lower, respectively.

Visualizing the same data, by state, on a national map tells a similar, regional story. As shown below, there remain dramatic differences in consumer behavior by region—explained in part by some combination of their states’ strategic approach and population density (e.g., urban vs. rural). All in all, foot traffic at commercial locations of interest has been far more adversely impacted across the Northeast and along the West Coast, compared to the Midwest’s and South’s more modest declines.

Overall, cities have witnessed the most dramatic changes in consumer behavior. On average, foot traffic in dense, urban areas has been far more affected than foot traffic in less densely populated, rural areas. Still, stark differences in consumer behavior are evident even from city to city, the natural consequence of local regulations put in place to stem the spread of COVID-19. Consider the chart below, which compares foot traffic trends in selected cities, including Boston, New York, Chicago, Miami, and Los Angeles.

Of the 50 different cities examined, Birmingham (-18%), Fort Worth (-20%), Oklahoma City (-22%), and Tulsa  (-22%) ended the month of December with the most moderate drops in foot traffic. All of the other cities recorded more substantive year-to-date declines in foot traffic, with the California cities of San Diego (-69%), San Francisco (-77%), and Los Angeles (-75%) most severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and related declines.

It merits a separate discussion, but it should be noted that pronounced differences exist between cities within place categories, as well. Below is a representative sample of foot traffic differences by category comparing the cities of Los Angeles, Miami, and New York. Additional data and analysis will be released in the coming weeks.

The pandemic’s economic impact will include permanent behavioral and structural changes across categories as digital experiences replace more of what we used to do in the physical world. Location intelligence, along with other, complementary data, can and should inform the approach we take—not only to mitigate the spread of the virus—but to minimize impact to the economy, to businesses, and to the livelihoods of the people they employ. We cannot afford to ignore the most vulnerable in our population—our “non-essential” workers, the unemployed, or financially insecure—as we formulate this strategy. Not only are the most vulnerable in our population frequently more susceptible to the virus, but they are also more apt to experience disproportionate hardships as a result.

While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to restarting the economy and stopping COVID-19, these variances in the data— comparing state to state, or city to city, with the national average—raise serious questions about our current patchwork approach to remediation. Through data, states and cities can identify best practices and pitfalls, avoid missteps, and speed decision-making. If we can coordinate our many efforts, bringing all of our available resources to bear, we just might ring in 2022 on a very different note.

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