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Virus Alters Where People Open Their Wallets, Hinting at a Halting Recovery

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Strict lockdowns ended weeks ago, but many people across the country are still avoiding malls, restaurants and other businesses. The shift in behavior points to a reshaping of American commerce, fueling questions about the strength and speed of the economic recovery as the coronavirus continues to spread.

Through the end of last week, daily visits to businesses were down 20 percent from last year, according to a New York Times analysis of foot traffic data from the smartphones of more than 15 million people. After an initial plunge in the spring, consumer habits have been slow to recover, the data shows.

As state and local officials have moved to reopen businesses, people have reacted differently depending on how they view the threat of the virus. Shopping behavior has varied widely by the type of business in question, how prevalent the outbreak is nearby and even voting patterns in the region.

Visits to businesses have, for example, rebounded more in Alabama, a largely conservative state, than in the more liberal Vermont. But in comparison with last year, people in Vermont have been shopping again more than people in California, where the virus remains a greater threat. Everywhere, trips to pharmacies and hospitals have fallen, while those to gas stations and convenience stores have held steady or even increased.

How people spend will determine which companies survive, and who ultimately keep their jobs. Continued weakness at brick-and-mortar stores has enormous implications for an economy that has had years of gains wiped away in the months since the pandemic hit. The disparities in how people shop hint at a prolonged, uncertain and uneven recovery.

Source: Cuebiq

“It’s Econ 101. People are weighing the costs and benefits of leaving their homes and exposing themselves to risk,” said Christopher Cronin, an economics professor at Notre Dame who studied people’s behavior early in the pandemic.

On Friday, federal data showed that retail sales in July rose 1.2 percent from June, the third straight month of growth. But the increase, which was largely helped by unemployment benefits that have since expired, masked major shifts across various industries.

The smartphone data, which was provided by the location analysis company Cuebiq, showed that people were less likely to visit businesses if they lived in a state with a significant Covid-19 outbreak, major urban population centers or a higher percentage of Democratic voters. New York and Massachusetts, which match those descriptions, have seen some of the lowest foot traffic throughout the pandemic. At the other end of the spectrum, Mississippi, Alabama and Oklahoma have consistently been among the states with near-normal shopping habits.

Read more about what companies like Cuebiq do with location information and what you can do to limit the activity.

States that saw early outbreaks were more likely to have imposed longer, more severe restrictions, but their residents remained cautious even after those rules had been lifted.

Mary Taggart, an art teacher in Wakefield, Mass., has not eaten at a restaurant in months and only shops regularly at her local grocery store, she said, even though many places are open. She has gone to a T.J. Maxx once this summer. “We can all name people we know who have contracted it and died,” she said of the virus.

Similar patterns emerged early in the pandemic. In March, Mr. Cronin found, state restrictions accounted for less than half of the decline in trips to businesses. People were likely to change their behavior once there was a death in their community.

Personal and political viewpoints also appear to be influencing behavior, several studies have found. Republican pundits and lawmakers have been more likely throughout the pandemic to emphasize the importance of reopening businesses and to play down worries about the virus.

“If you had a Republican-leaning and a Democratic-leaning area with similar reopening dates, the Republican area was still more likely to have a faster recovery” as measured by the restarting of small businesses, said Zoë Cullen, an economist at Harvard Business School.

Ms. Cullen and her colleagues, who have been regularly surveying business owners, found that those who provided essential goods and services, and whose products could not be bought online, thought they would be better able to weather the economic storm.

Regardless of region, bars are emptier than they were

Even in states such as Mississippi, where many people were shopping and going out to eat, bars fared poorly in the data reviewed by The Times.

Source: Cuebiq

Other small businesses tried curbside pickup and delivery orders, but not all bars could do that. “Most of our revenue was cocktail sales, so food to go was not a viable option,” said Jessica Baesler, co-owner of the Someday bar in Portland, Ore., which opened in January. Oregon does not allow to-go sales of drinks with hard liquor, so Ms. Baesler and her partner, Graham Files, have joined an effort to change the law. This summer they have been selling takeout wine and beer, and they reopened with outdoor tables this month.

Despite fewer visits to bars, Americans kept drinking. Companies that offer alcohol delivery, such as Drizly and Minibar, represent a small proportion of overall alcohol sales, but had spending in July shoot up more than 500 percent from last year, according to Earnest Research, which tracks credit and debit card purchases. Molson Coors Beverage said that closing bars and restaurants eliminated all demand for kegs in the second quarter. But demand for 12-ounce cans “went through the roof.”

Limits on indoor dining are still punishing sit-down restaurants

Restaurants in many states still face restrictions on indoor seating. In Mississippi, several restaurateurs said customers seemed eager to return this summer, but businesses earned less even then.

“We would have blown out our June numbers from last year if we had been allowed the seating to do it,” said Richard Shapley, owner of Ely’s Restaurant and Bar, an upscale steak restaurant north of Jackson that has followed the state’s guidelines to cut its capacity in half. “I understand why we couldn’t do that, and that’s fine, but from a business standpoint it was still difficult.”

Across the country, spending at casual dining chains, including Applebee’s and the Olive Garden, remained about 30 percent below last year for the week ending Aug. 5, according to Earnest.

Fast food outlets, however, have done better, the movement data shows, in part because their models were already built for takeout and drive-through service.

Source: Cuebiq

As retail chains go bankrupt, essential businesses find ways to grow

Even as big shopping malls started reopening in May, foot traffic at many retailers has remained well below last year’s levels in most states, reflecting in part unease about indoor spaces where the risk of transmission is higher. The plunge in demand for work and dressy apparel and accessories during lockdowns has not helped.

And e-commerce revenue hasn’t fully offset the hit to store sales for retailers, prompting a slew of chains like J.C. Penney and J.Crew to file for bankruptcy.

Source: Cuebiq

But many people, recently housebound, quickly turned to home improvement stores like Home Depot and Lowe’s, especially as the weather warmed up. Visits to the stores jumped in May and June from a year earlier, and Home Depot on Tuesday reported sales over $38 billion in the most recent quarter, a 23 percent increase.

The pandemic has supercharged online spending, which could have lasting effects on the future of retailing. For the week ending July 29, online spending was up 20 percent from a year earlier, while in-store spending was down 11 percent, according to Earnest data. Many chains that were able to stay open, especially Walmart and Target, have gained a new edge in e-commerce, as they started local delivery and options for customers to buy online for in-store or curbside pickup.

Online data excludes Walmart Online Grocery sales and Target’s grocery sales made through Shipt.·Source: Earnest Research

After panic-buying, grocery stores change their model

The scenes of panic-buying at packed grocery stores in March have slipped into memory, and now visits are down 2 percent compared with last year. The stores were deemed essential and stayed open during the entirety of the pandemic, but the virus has nevertheless changed the way the business works.

Since early April, online spending on groceries — which includes pickup and delivery — has more than doubled compared with last year, while in-store spending has increased but only by single-digit percentage points, according to Earnest. Analysts at Cowen, an investment bank, recently estimated that the online share of grocery sales in the United States could reach 20 percent by 2025 from about 5 percent last year.

Kroger, which has stores in 35 states, is one of the grocers benefiting from the move to e-commerce. Its chief executive said in June that while he expected online sales to decline from initial pandemic-fueled spikes, they would be “higher than where it started before Covid-19 and then grow from there.”

What the future holds

In late June, as coronavirus cases began to surge in new areas of the country, commercial foot traffic in many states began to slide, the data shows. This was especially true in states that began opening up earlier; business owners in Mississippi, for example, said the drop in traffic was noticeable. New York and Massachusetts, on the other hand, have been steadily improving for months but are still at depressed levels.

Percent change in visits to commercial locations from June 1 to Aug. 15 from the same period last year. States are ordered according to the drop in foot traffic they saw from June 20 to June 27, a week when multiple states were recording new increases in coronavirus cases.

Source: Cuebiq

Even in states with major outbreaks, the reduction in business traffic this summer was not as severe as the decline in the spring. And although it dipped in many areas, activity only stayed down in states with large confirmed spikes in virus transmission, such as Arizona and Florida.

The trends suggest that even as the virus continues to spread, people are less likely to stay home. But any return to a semblance of normalcy will be dictated by the whims of the virus and the country’s response to it, forcing companies and their customers to learn to adapt to new conditions on practically a weekly basis.

Economists and small-business owners alike said they anticipated the uncertainty to last at least through the fall. Ultimately, even enterprises that make it through the pandemic may face long-term changes in how people spend their money.

“For many businesses, there’s going to be a fight to survive,” said Mr. Cronin, the Notre Dame professor. “Your choice is to shut down or to do something dramatically different.”

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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home

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On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

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Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”

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Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.

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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment

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The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.

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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls

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With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

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