Shoppers are Shopping: Foot Traffic Patterns Heading into the Holidays

The COVID-19 pandemic’s negative impact on the retail industry cannot be understated, but many retailers have emerged in 2021 stronger than ever.
Shoppers on street

With consumers coming back into stores, retail traffic counter and shopper analytics company Springboard took a look back at the foot traffic patterns in 2020 and 2021 to make predictions about the end of the year and beyond. 

Foot traffic patterns


Foot traffic took a dive in 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic set in and nonessential retailers closed up shop. Over the last 18 months, foot traffic has rebounded, but it’s still significantly lower than pre-pandemic levels, according to Diane Wehrle, marketing and insights director at Springboard.

It’s typical for pedestrian foot traffic to vary year to year, but 2020 was unlike any other. 

“The level of [foot traffic] drop we saw in retail destinations across the U.S. we’ve never seen before,” Wehrle said of 2020’s figures during a recent webinar on the state of retail. 

Foot traffic dropped 88% in the beginning of the pandemic, she noted, but gradually improved to being 66.8% below 2019 levels by the end of the year. In 2021, which is “hopefully the year we come out of COVID-19,” pedestrian traffic is still down nearly 51%. 

“That’s quite a substantial degree of recovery,” Wehrle said, and “it’s getting stronger and people are going back to stores.”

In the last few months, foot traffic has continued to improve, though the Delta variant and bad weather have played a negative role, according to data from Springboard, which surveys consumers on their comfortability going out shopping, how their shopping behavior has changed and working patterns. 

Over half of consumers feel pretty comfortable going into stores to shop, Wehrle said of the survey data, but that comfort level has started to decline slightly just in the last few weeks. Extreme heat followed by extreme rain in certain areas in the U.S. has “lessened the willingness to go out,” she said.

Holiday season expectations and 2022 predictions


Ami Ziff, director of national retail at real estate investment and development firm Time Equities, agrees with Wehrle and sees 2021 as a stronger year for retail.

“Oddly enough, the retail business is about as strong as it's been since 2007,” he said during the webinar. “I think the rest of the year looks steady.”

However, the recovery has not been even across the board. Retailers that were able to adapt to the overnight changes in 2020 by modernizing physical spaces, enhancing safety measures and improving their online presence and capabilities are the ones succeeding today.

“What we’re seeing is a continuation of the bifurcation in performance among retailers,” Michael Appel, president of Appel Associates, said in the webinar. “Those updated stores are performing really well, such as Costco, Target, the drug chains, the dollar stores, Walmart and Amazon. … The best in class retailers continue to be really strong.”

A big question remains how much shoppers will go online for their purchases even as they return to stores. For now, it seems many consumers are still doing both––with online shopping likely to remain elevated as in-store shopping continues to pick up.

In addition, the movement of people away from their offices toward working remotely has also had a big impact on retail. Instead of during the morning commute, retailers are seeing more foot traffic at the end of the day, with the biggest traffic days coming on weekends. Many people also picked up and moved out of major cities during the pandemic, impacting retailers in city centers as well as those smaller centers and malls in the suburbs, which have seen higher traffic. 

As for what will be the biggest disruptor in 2022, Ziff and Appel both agree that a lack of supply––merchandise, says Ziff, and labor, says Appel––will be the biggest factor.

“If you don’t have merchandise, you can’t sell it,” Ziff said. 

As a result of supply chain struggles, many major retailers are stocking up early and placing larger orders well ahead of the holiday season. 

And according to Appel, “One of the biggest problems in retail today is recruiting and training qualified sales associates. That’s going to be a huge challenge.”