How restaurants can get off the COVID-19 rollercoaster

Last month, coronavirus case counts were declining in some areas, states were reopening, and things were starting to look optimistic. Now, as case counts rise again and some states roll back their reopening plans, this time period feels like a rollercoaster ride in the most depressing theme park ever.

Here we go again - case are counts rising in most states, but some are worse than others.

We recently conducted a foot traffic analysis of consumer behavior in states where cases are spiking (download a PDF of the full analysis here). Coronavirus case counts are rising in most states, but the rate of increase is most severe in the Southeast and Mountain West regions (highlighted in yellow). The rate of increase is lowest in the Northeast, AZ, and SD (shown in blue).


How did we get here? Restaurant visitation is a leading indicator of COVID case spikes.

There appears to be relationship between new COVID-19 case counts and restaurant traffic. Avoidance of restaurants is a leading indicator of reduced case count, as we learned a few weeks ago. Below we see three groups of states separated based on their case counts: highest ever, increasing (but not highest ever), and decreasing - as of June 17th.

In states with highest case counts at that time, there had been an increase in foot traffic to restaurants in the weeks prior. In states with decreasing case counts, restaurant foot traffic was mostly flat compared to the other groups of states. Conversely, when consumers choose retailers (i.e. grocery, mass, club, etc.) rather than restaurants, that seems to be a leading indicator of decreasing case counts.


What about lagging indicators?

It has been a difficult time for many, and people want to take little victories where they can - especially when the media narrative is that their state is celebrating a slowdown or decline of new coronavirus cases.

Those little victories often take the form of restaurant visits. Below, we show foot traffic trends in states with slowdowns vs. increased rates of new cases, indexed against the national average of total bar and restaurant foot traffic.

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In states with lower rates of new coronavirus cases, people express their optimism (or simply stir-craziness) by returning to restaurants and bars. Conversely, in states with higher rates of new cases, people avoid restaurants and opt to stay home, likely influenced by both personal confidence and also governments allowing re-openings.  The trend is also heavily influenced by big states like NY and NJ, who were slow to see restaurant traffic pick up but are now experiencing it in recent weeks.

We seem to be on a sinusoidal wave - case counts increase, so people avoid restaurants, then cases drop - hooray! To celebrate, people go back out to restaurants. But then cases go up again. Worst rollercoaster ride ever.

The bottom line - an ounce of prevention is worth a ton of cure.

The past few months have been an incredibly difficult time for consumers, for restaurants - for everyone. But people miss dining out, and they do it as soon as soon as they feel like it's safe. 

To avoid the rollercoaster effect as states reopen too much or too soon, an ounce of prevention is worth a ton of cure.

Many restaurants have been taking great steps to ensure the safety of their workers and customers, and they should continue to maintain these measures and innovate further.

To help our friends in the restaurant industry, we fielded a survey to concept-test various safety measures you can implement to help your customers feel safe. Download a PDF of the survey results here.


Today's analysis (PDF here) came from our COVID-19 Briefing webinar series, which we host every Tuesday and Friday morning. We share consumer insights combining foot traffic, surveys, and transaction data to keep a finger on the pulse of rapidly-changing landscape for the CPG, restaurant, and retail industries.

person-sharing-french-fries-4676401Next webinar: Changing Consumer Perceptions of Restaurant Chains

In Tuesday's webinar, we'll examine the latest trends in consumer perceptions of Limited Service Restaurants, using survey results on over 150 restaurant brands across 35 brand attributes (cleanliness, value, image/reputation, service, food, and many more).

Join us on Tuesday,9:30-10am Pacific. Register for the webinar here.