Store Visits Spike As States Lift Lockdowns, Even As Millions Remain Unemployed

In a sign that maybe it won’t take years for consumers to get over their aversion to public spaces (as CNN has suggested), Reuters reports that visits to retail stores ticked higher across the US last week, with the biggest upticks seen in states that have started lifting at least some restrictions.

A report from Unacast used ‘anonymized cellphone location data’ to measure consumer foot traffic at retail ‘hot spots’, and it showed that the number of store visits climbed significantly week over week, in yet another reminder of how hedge funds will be among the biggest beneficiaries of the massive expansion of public surveillance that has accompanied the outbreak.

Traffic increased ~25% from the prior week, according to the report.

Unacast maps cellphone location data gathered through applications and overlays it with a wide range of shops, travel facilities and other consumer-facing retail sites. It tracks visits only, not sales, but generates a massive amount of data to identify trends.

Americans made more than 103 million stops at retail spots nationwide on Friday, April 25, up from 86 million on the previous Friday, but 20% below the previous year, Unacast said.

In coming days, the data may start to answer a critical question: How quickly will consumers, the engine of the U.S. economy, react to any easing of coronavirus restrictions even as the death toll from the virus, now at 55,000, continues to increase?

States like Georgia (which allowed most of its economy to re-start last week) and Ohio and Wisconsin (which allowed some businesses to start reopening) saw the biggest increases week-over-week, suggesting that reopening may have a more-or-less immediate stimulative effect.

In Georgia, where Gov. Brian Kemp has taken perhaps the most aggressive steps to restart the local economy, traffic to retail locations jumped 35% from Thursday to Friday, when his first easing orders took effect, and remained high on Saturday.

Traffic to retail spots in Georgia averaged about half the 2019 level from April 1 to April 19. The gap narrowed to around 40% over the weekend, the data showed.

Traffic to home improvement stores nationwide surged above 2019 levels for three days in a row, ending Saturday, in at least 18 states, the strongest such jump since late March.

Some of those states, such as South Dakota, never imposed stay-at-home orders.

The increase in traffic also extended to states like Ohio and Wisconsin, which have begun allowing a broader range of stores to begin restoring operations.

Recent U.S. economic data has generally painted a bleak picture as mandated shutdowns and weak demand have led to a massive 26 million new unemployment claims over the last four weeks.

However, the insights we can extrapolate from these data are somewhat limited.

The data offer no insight into consumer spending – they only measure foot traffic. So we still don’t know whether people are buying more nonessentials, or if they’re merely stopping to window-shop during their infrequent trips to buy ‘essential items’, and fantasize about the ‘before time’. That would make sense considering that millions are now unemployed, and probably saving their pennies until more state unemployment or federal stimulus money hits.

And there’s already reason to suspect that the latter scenario might be more accurate, as David Rosenberg points out.

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