COVID-19 and food retail: New data reveals winners and losers in foot traffic, visit duration

Whole Foods’ foot traffic remains down more than 20% as rivals recover, reveals Placer.ai data

By Elaine Watson contact

- Last updated on GMT

Placer.ai: 'Whole Foods continued to stay far behind the pace of other grocers...'
Placer.ai: 'Whole Foods continued to stay far behind the pace of other grocers...'

Related tags: foot traffic, COVID-19, coronavirus

New data monitoring store visits at America’s leading food retailers between March and September 2020 shows that traffic at Whole Foods remains down more than 20% year-on-year, while most rival grocers have seen a steady recovery.

As a point of comparison, Placer.ai’s new Grocery Deep Dive report​ ​compares Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, noting that both saw a spike in traffic in early March during the ‘pantry-loading’ phase, followed by a precipitous decline as shoppers stayed home.

While Trader Joe’s traffic steadily recovered thereafter, however, Whole Foods’ numbers remain down by more than 20%.

The two brands saw completely different recoveries," ​reported Placer.ai​. "Trader Joe’s took a giant leap back and began to climb steeply back with visits reaching year-over-year growth in the summer, while Whole Foods continued to stay far behind the pace of other grocers.”

Both chains have experienced a drop off in average visits per customer, but average visit duration​ has increased by more than 9% at Trader Joe’s, and has remained the same at Whole Foods, noted Placer.ai.

“Trader Joe’s was much more successful at adapting to the mission-driven shopping pattern that has accelerated across the country during the pandemic. In a year-over-year comparison, Trader Joe’s average length of visit increased by over 9% (around 3 minutes longer) for the last six months year-over-year while Whole Foods’ remained exactly the same.

“This means that while visit numbers expectedly declined, Trader Joe’s was able to rely on an extended visit while Whole Foods could not lean on this expanded basket size.”

trader Joes Whole Foods foot traffic 2020
Source: Placer.ai report, Oct 2020, Grocery Deep Dive
trader joes v whole foods placer ai
Source: Placer.ai report, Oct 2020, Grocery Deep Dive

Fewer, longer shopping trips, earlier in the day

Other trends highlighted in the Placer.ai data across all leading grocers include a drop-off in shopping on Sundays in favor of weekdays, and a trend towards shopping earlier in the day.

With the exception of Kroger and Whole Foods, which have not seen an increase in visit duration, most grocers have experienced an increase in average visit length of between 2-9% year-over-year during the March-September period, but generally saw a decline in the average number of visits per visitor (with the exception of Publix, Winn-Dixie, and Safeway), said Placer.ai.

“Essentially, consumers were looking to make fewer visits, but accomplish more with each visit, a trend known as mission-driven shopping​.”

In general, it noted, the pandemic “seems to have lifted up traditional grocers,​” such as Albertsons, which “showed a unique level of strength throughout the pandemic period, with visits rising as high as 17.5% year over year in June.”

store visits
Source: Placer.ai report, Oct 2020, Grocery Deep Dive

Dr James Richardson: ‘Whole Foods has never really shed its optionality in the shopping routines of millions of Americans’

Dr James F. Richardson, cultural anthropologist turned business strategist, and author of the book, Ramping Your Brand: How to Ride the Killer CPG Growth Curve​, told FoodNavigator-USA that the report highlighted some fundamental challenges facing Whole Foods.

“Whole Foods' foot traffic is still down about 20% and holding there. Since Amazon Flex and Instacart shoppers have to come onsite to shop, these foot-traffic numbers take online orders into account.”

‘Amazon may very well innovate directly around Whole Foods, killing what it created’

At bottom, the data is a “fascinating symptom of a longer-term problem for the chain,” ​he claimed. “It has never really shed its optionality in the shopping routines of millions of Americans.  

I suspect strongly that Whole Foods has lost a significant amount of packaged CPG sales to other retailers serviced by Instacart and who have better in-stock performance and delivery slots.

“CEO John Mackey's niche ideology (organic grocery for all) is even more of a limitation now than ever, and Amazon may very well innovate directly around Whole Foods, killing what it created. I would place a bet on that in the next 10 years. Whole Foods locations may also be converted to the new Amazon Grocery format as well.”

Download the Placer.ai report HERE​.  

Related topics: Markets, The changing retail landscape

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