How the pandemic impacted downtown shopper traffic over the festive season

The latest blog post from Springboard’s Marketing and Insights Director, Diane Wehrle.


2021 was the first nearly normal festive trading period since 2019 however, as reported in Springboard’s Consumer Survey for January 2022. The emergence of the Omicron variant in the last two months of the year impacted plans of a third of shoppers to make in-person shopping trips, with a further 14% stating that it had a partial impact. The positive news for brick and mortar stores and destinations was that it had no impact on the plans for over half (53%) of consumers.

The National Retail Federation (NRF) reported that sales in November and December rose by 14.1% over the same months in 2021, much higher than their predicted increase of 8.5%. However, the U.S. Department of Commerce reported December 2021 sales were up 16.9% over the previous year. However, it also observed that sales declined by 1.9% from November to December, as shoppers were clearly concerned about supply chain issues and started their festive shopping earlier.

The ICSC, too, reported strong gains of 17% year after year for the two-month period, which also includes restaurant sales. Yet it, too, said that the respondents to its survey reported slower sales in December. Some other pandemic trends also emerged that could presage the future.

Springboard’s US downtown shopper traffic index indicates that activity is strengthening in urban and suburban regions however recovery in smaller neighborhood centers has been more significant than in large city centers — this is largely due to a combination of continued home working and much lower levels of international tourism. It is also likely to be exacerbated by the Omicron variant which emerged in November and appeared to be more contagious than Delta. This meant that working at home was likely to increase and trips to retail destinations would reduce.

For the past year we have been able to examine shopper behavior across the UK and US which has led us to identify that consumers prefer to shop at local stores in an attempt to minimize travel. However, we are slowly emerging into some sort of new normal, where we’re learning to live with the pandemic. ‘Normal’ has now shifted as a consequence of the pandemic. We may well see a narrowing in the difference from pre-Covid 19; however, we have been made aware that we will be living with Covid 19 for the foreseeable future. This means that hybrid working will continue and some international tourism may choose not to return, instead preferring to stay closer to home. All of this means that downtown foot traffic — even without any additional variants — is likely to settle at between -10% and -15% below the 2019 level for the foreseeable future.

Notes: Diane has over 30 years’ experience in retail and is regarded as one of the leading experts on retail and retail destinations, with an unparalleled knowledge and expertise in understanding current and emerging retail issues and consumer trends. Diane regularly commentates on the performance of retail for national broadcast and print media, appearing regularly on BBC, Sky News and Bloomberg. As a founding director of Springboard (established in 2002), Diane specialises in delivering intelligence and insights on both current retail performance and long term retail trends to retailers, hospitality occupiers, landlords, investors and place managers, and was recently named as one of the world’s 100 top retail influencers in 2022 by Rethink Retail for the second year running.