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APR 26 At the bustling Coral Ridge Mall, hungry shoppers queued more than a dozen deep at food court venues and lined up outside popular clothing stores, like the recently opened H & M outlet, on a recent Saturday. Twenty-four miles to the west, the parking lot at Outlets Williamsburg was once again full. And at Coralville’s Iowa River Landing, warmer weather, a dramatic uptake in vaccinations, and events ramping up at the onsite Xtream Arena combined to produce some of the venue’s highest foot traffic numbers in more than a year. “[The arena] has given us a double shot in the arm, along with coronavirus starting to subside and people wanting to get out and move,” said Deanna Trumbull, Iowa River Landing’s director of leasing. “We are definitely seeing and feeling an increase.” After a long cold winter and more than a year of shrunken sales due to pandemic-related closings, reduced hours and customer hesitancy, it’s official: Retail is making a comeback. “Our traffic numbers have been great,” agreed Kristie Wetjen, general manager of Outlets Williamsburg, which saw numbers spike just after Gov. Kim Reynolds closed, then re-opened businesses statewide, and is now riding a new high. “The numbers we’re getting now, especially on weekends, are amazing.” The evidence isn’t just anecdotal. Data scientists at marketing tech firm Zenreach recently studied the 90-day trend between Jan. 1 and April 1, finding that national in-store visits and foot traffic to retail and restaurant establishments rose 47.42% over the same period in 2020. Those findings were backed up by the March retail report from the U.S. Commerce Department indicating sales for the month were up 9.8%, nearly double the Wall Street consensus forecast of 5.9%. Stripping out auto and gasoline sales, retail sales rose 8.2% — a gain the National Retail Federation attributed to fatter bank accounts from a new round of stimulus checks, a quickening economy and, perhaps most importantly, a beefed-up vaccine rollout that has seen about half of all Americans get at least one shot as of the CBJ deadline. About 37% of Iowans were fully vaccinated as of mid-April. Iowa has seen dramatic increases in overall retail foot traffic over the past month, according to analytics firm placer.ai, with an overall increase of 92.8% across all categories for the week ending April 11 over the same period last year. Pandemic stalwarts like grocery stores and superstores faltered somewhat in the most recent week’s analysis. But hard-hit restaurants and hotels are showing strong rebounds, up 268% and 547% respectively. Ms. Trumbull said the boost has been welcome for IRL’s restaurants, many of which have only been able to keep the lights on through delivery and curbside pickup. But it has been a true life raft for the complex’s hotels, which had been running on fumes for a year. IRL is home to the Marriott Hotel & Conference Center, Drury Inn & Suites and Homewood Suites by Hilton, as well as the newly opened Staybridge Suites. Sporting events at Xtream Arena was the first major contributor to a recent uptick in overnight stays in the new year, she said, “and with the stays we saw over spring break, it seems like people are looking to do outings again.” Several categories that have languished for months as the pandemic ground on saw massive jumps in the Iowa placer rankings, including fitness centers, up nearly 2,000% in foot traffic over last year. While sporting goods stores and companies like Peloton flourished during the pandemic as people sought to stay fit at home, fitness centers took a hit due to close quarters sweating and breathing. “People are definitely finding us now more than ever,” said Kathryn Kahn, general manager of Thrive Gym in Coralville, adding the biggest difference is in the number of customers willing to reengage in personal training and group classes. A spokesman for The Gym in downtown Iowa City said the facility had seen a marked increase in gym participation and membership over the past month. “If our daily average was 120-150 clients a day give or take, we’ve added 10 or 20 more [new] clients a month over the past few months,” he said. “We have new clients coming in saying, ‘I’ve got the vaccine and I feel more comfortable.’ With summer weather, people want to get in shape, and they are coming in.” Apparel, which also plunged disastrously during the wear-sweats, stay-at-home months of the pandemic, is similarly up sharply in placer’s statewide foot traffic analysis, increasing nearly 1,830%. “I would say January, February, March were not very good,” said Tammy Cannavo, owner of Marion women’s boutique Di Moda, frankly. “But the month of April, it’s been crazy good. We’ve done almost as well this month as the past three months combined.” Soft goods took one of the biggest hits of all during the pandemic as Americans worked from home in comfortable clothes. “Everyone spent a lot of time not dressing up and going everywhere in joggers and yoga pants,” Ms. Trumbull said. “There was nowhere to go to wear it.” The pandemic caused some fashion retailers to hold off opening new outlets, including cult favorite Anthropologie, which had been close to signing a lease at IRL before the pandemic. The women’s clothing, accessory and home décor outlet is now working on a 9,000-square-foot space between lululemon and J.Jill, expected to open its doors this fall. “People are starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel,” she said. “For so long, we’ve been careful not to expose our grandmas, grandpas and moms and dads, but [with vaccinations], people are starting to get out a little more … the next three or four months are going to say a lot about what we can expect.” Placer data for Iowa City shows traffic to retailers in the Iowa City Downtown District plunged to near-zero in March 2020 from a former baseline of between a half million and 750,000 visits a month (see related story, page 8). After slowly rising through the spring and spiking to around the 400,000-visit level last summer, visits dived below 250,000 again through the winter. But numbers were headed back up again as of March 1 as the community began getting first vaccinations and weather conditions improved. NEWSMAKERS UPDATE Retail demand remains strong Residents in the Corridor are embracing the ‘buy local’ message. That’s according to Monica Vernon, the executive director of Czech Village New Bohemia District, who has encouraged people to channel that pent-up demand for stores and restaurants that were closed into helping local businesses. “We lost eight businesses but we also gained 30, so we had a net of 22 new businesses,” she said, before mentioning that only one business planned to open but ultimately could not due to a lack of available workers. While Czech Village has eagerly welcomed customers back with open arms, safety concerns surrounding COVID-19 continue to linger, she says. “Some people are cautiously venturing out,” said Ms. Vernon. “I get it; people have pre-existing conditions.” Still, the National Retail Federation predicts that holiday spending this year has the potential to shatter previous records, a sign that demand for products is not waning and customers will find ways to get the gifts they need. The study found that holiday sales during November and December could grow between 8.5% and 10.5% over 2020. — Noah Tong