General merchandise and building materials are among the encouraging retail categories in Grand Forks, according to a consultant who is working with the Chamber of Commerce on a project to determine consumer habits in the region.
Mark Schill, a consultant with Praxis Strategy Group, noted various highlights in a brief and unofficial report he recently made for Barry Wilfahrt, president and CEO of the East Grand Forks/Grand Forks Chamber of Commerce. The chamber, aided by several other groups in Grand Forks, paid $90,000 for the project — $50,000 to purchase the data and $40,000 in costs to analyze it.
The project was begun well before the coronavirus pandemic, but its data offers insight into how the pandemic has affected retail in the region.
According to Schill's note to the chamber, following are some highlights from the data, which was gathered by Buxton, a Texas-based analytics company.
Restaurants: Schill said that of North Dakota's largest cities, Grand Forks "has taken the biggest hit in foot traffic." He said that prior to the pandemic, visits were tracking close to 2019. "One thing that’s really striking here is the spikes in visits on the Grand Forks chart are much higher than the other charts," Schill wrote. "This might support the importance of drawing people to the community, both for events and also the weekend shoppers might be more important to Grand Forks vs. other places."
Bars: There has been a large decrease, but Schill said the city is looking better than bars in other large cities. Schill attributed some of that success to the city's decision during the pandemic to relax some regulations with bars and restaurants regarding carry-out beer, wine and liquor.
Clothing stores: Traffic to local clothing stores appeared to be rising before the pandemic.
Grocery: Grand Forks did not see the big run on grocery business that occurred in some other places in the state, Schill said. However, he speculates that grocery sales may still be up.
General merchandise and warehouse clubs: Schill said the data show these are "way up in Grand Forks," possibly due to panic buying during the early stages of the pandemic.
Malls: Mall traffic is down as expected, said Schill, who added that "the pre-crisis data here is interesting. Bismarck, Dickinson, and Minot malls have a 'hit rate' of about 5-7% pre-crisis, Grand Forks around 3-4% and Fargo only about 2-3%. Even with some of the vacancy at Columbia Mall, those numbers are not that bad."
Sporting goods: Schill said there wasn't much shocking in sporting goods data, but did point out large spikes on weekends and on days of local events.
Hotels: Schill pointed out a "massive spike" on Feb. 22, the day of the Kiss concert.
Auto dealers: Schill said the data seem to show Grand Forks isn't bad compared to other local retailers. He said it appears there was a large decrease in Bismarck.
Dentists: Dentists took a "major hit," Schill said, noting that it may portray the pandemic's impact to ancillary health care businesses. Physicians offices have seen some decline, too.
Building materials/home centers: Simply put, said Schill: "Traffic here is way up. Interestingly it’s been up in Grand Forks for the past few months."
Home furnishings: Steady in Grand Forks, but down a bit from a high point in February and March, according to Schill.
Electronics and appliances: Down fairly significantly, Schill said. The decrease in Grand Forks appears larger than in other areas, he said.