Y'all are still sitting home, watching Hulu, and feeding your sourdough starters like it's May 2020 — or at least some of you are. And some new data shows that while spending on restaurants and entertainment has fully rebounded from the pandemic in other parts of the country, it still hasn't in SF.
Here's another data point to add to "doom loop" narratives, but one we can actually all do something about: Spending on things like groceries, retail shopping, and healthcare — essentially, "self-care" spending — is basically back to where it was in the before times in our fair city; but spending on going out is still down about 15%.
This is according to TracktheRecovery.org, which has tracked credit and debit card transactions by category so that we can compare, say, May 2023 to January 2020. From their data, we see that Californians as a whole are just barely spending more overall than they were in 2020 — overall consumer spending is up 3% in those three years — while elsewhere, like across the eastern seaboard, spending is up by much larger figures like 24.8% (New York), 33.8% (New Jersey), and 36% (Vermont).
The Chronicle pulled out the San Francisco-specific data today and found that spending by residents here on things like restaurants, hotels, transportation, and entertainment are all still significantly below pre-pandemic levels — between 15% and 20% in recent weeks. While spending on groceries is up about 5%, which indicates that much more staying at home — and/or it just indicates what inflation has done to grocery prices. Spending on retail in general is just about what it was in January 2020 for San Francisco, the data shows.
"What jumps out at me is that people continue to avoid other people,” says Berkeley economics professor Ross Levine, speaking to the Chronicle. "There has been a shift away from engaging with other people."
There were a couple of good weeks for restaurants in the last six months in SF, the data shows — spending was up around Valentine's Day week, for instance, and again in mid-April. And things appeared to be improving the first week of June from May, but grocery spending was still up almost 13% while restaurant spending was down by almost the same amount.
Local bar and restaurant owners have been lamenting about this fact for at least a year now, saying that business had yet to recover back to what it was. And now we have broad-scale data to prove it.
Ted Egan, the chief economist in San Francisco’s Office of the Controller, wasn't so optimistic about the restaurant recovery, and his prediction was perhaps right that 2023 was probably too optimistic a timeframe for a full rebound.
And another huge reason why consumer spending is down in SF is what has been cited for many months regarding downtown being a ghost town — everyone is working from home. That means a huge swath of downtown businesses aren't seeing the foot traffic they did in 2019, and people generally aren't spending money on lunches or happy hours like they did when they were in an office.
But people are still going out to dinner in decent numbers, especially close to home.
Laurie Thomas, executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, told SFGate last spring that the recovery would take much longer than a year. And, she added, "Neighborhood restaurants have a much better chance at survival than our restaurants in the downtown, Union Street, and Moscone quarter... The neighborhood restaurants are doing better [than pre-pandemic], particularly the ones that can take advantage of the shared spaces program."
As far as entertainment goes, we know people aren't going to the movies much — and we just lost two of SF's biggest cineplexes, the 100 Van Ness property and the Century 9 at the Westfield, in the last four months. San Franciscans' spending picture on recreation and entertainment has been a little more erratic over the last year, with some weeks showing 50% upticks over January 2020 — like the week ending March 19 for some reason.
The long and the short of it is, we need to support local businesses! Especially the businesses we don't want to see close!
Remember that they're there. Meet your friends out for coffee or drinks or mocktails, or whatever. It can't be all Zoom book clubs and meal delivery forever. There's a whole city out there!
Photo: Matt Jones