Sales volume is improving at many shopping centers, despite customers’ briefer store visits. The trend runs contrary to a retailing maxim that longer dwell time goes hand in hand with increased spending. The shift has landlords wondering whether the trend is a temporary aberration or some other quirk in a growing list of recent changes in consumer behavior. “We’re seeing sales numbers rise, but traffic isn’t necessarily back to pre-COVID numbers,” said Centennial president and COO Whitney Livingston. “That proves out that our projects can be successful without dwell time needing to be, at least right now, a key indicator.”
Average visit duration for some large apparel retailers declined by between 3 percent and 12 percent year over year in the first quarter, according to Placer.ai. The number of visits for those brands has been increasing, however, rising from the second to the third quarter of 2020 and again in the fourth quarter. Visits fell from the fourth quarter of 2020 to the first quarter of 2021, but that’s a seasonal norm. They increased 3 percent year over year in the first
Livingston attributes the current disconnect between dwell time and sales partly to the growing popularity of curbside pickup and same-day delivery. “Shoppers are still shopping our centers, but that doesn’t mean they’re coming in. Buy-online-pick-up in store with curbside pickup is a huge trend we don’t believe will go away. There is also buy online and same-day local delivery,” she said. “Those two really important trends are creating ways to still shop your local mall without crossing the threshold of the shopping center.” Shoppers also are researching purchases online and making quick store visits to purchase items, Livingston suggests. “There’s not as much lingering,” she said. “They are informed about what they are coming for.”
Placer.ai offers a different explanation for why shoppers spent less time per store visit in the first quarter. Vice president of marketing Ethan Chernofsky calls it a return to normal after months of mission-driven shopping. Shoppers had been going to the store less often but packing more merchandise into their carts when they finally did go, essentially stocking up between infrequent visits. “They were seeing fewer overall purchases but more in each basket,” Chernofsky said. “What we saw as the recovery picked up is much more normalcy in terms of visit duration.”
Retailers and their landlords need to monitor visit duration and decide whether they should adjust their operations or marketing to align with customer habits and preferences, he says. “There were all these behaviors we saw in the last year that were weird and different and COVID-caused. The overwhelming majority of those will go back to normal, but will they go back all the way? There is a mission-driven shopping element, but there is also that people revealed some of their preferences to do things when they have the time.”
Gyms and grocery stores, for example, experienced a surge in daytime visits during the pandemic. If consumers continue to have flexible schedules that enable them to continue buying groceries or working out in the middle of the day, it can help spread gym and grocery store demand throughout the day, even after COVID-19 is less of a concern, he explained. “Those opportunities for flexibility allow consumers to shop the way they want when they want, which creates an overall better retail environment. It is better for the shopping center, better for the consumer and better for the retailer,” Chernofsky said. Look for shopping centers and retailers to incentivize certain new consumer behaviors, such as a steadier flow of customers throughout the day. “As more companies recognize that they have lots of levers to pull, they are going to try to keep parts of their audience doing these win-win behaviors,” he said.
Livingston predicts dwell times will climb — and play a greater role in driving sales for tenants — once landlords resume events, which helped draw shoppers before the pandemic. “Your No. 1 priority right now as a landlord is safety,” she said, “but we will get back to a time when people are coming in, lingering, events are happening again and there is a consistent rhythm of activity by the landlord to enhance the customer experience.”