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U.S. store visits jump to March levels as some states ease restrictions

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Visits to U.S. retail stores ticked up last week as some states began lifting restrictions imposed to fight the coronavirus pandemic, according to cellphone location information aggregated by data firm Unacast.

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Nationwide traffic at retail "points of interest" jumped on Saturday to the highest level since March 20, when stay-at-home orders and restrictions on business were starting to roll through the economy, according to a retail scorecard here compiled by the company.

Unacast maps cellphone location data gathered through applications and overlays it with a wide range of shops, travel facilities and other consumer-facing retail sites. It tracks visits only, not sales, but generates a massive amount of data to identify trends.

Americans made more than 103 million stops at retail spots nationwide on Friday, April 25, up from 86 million on the previous Friday, but 20% below the previous year, Unacast said.

In coming days, the data may start to answer a critical question: How quickly will consumers, the engine of the U.S. economy, react to any easing of coronavirus restrictions even as the death toll from the virus, now at 55,000, continues to increase?

(See a graphic on the spread of the coronavirus in the United States here.)

It will take time for any trend in the data to become established, but recent days have shown glimmers of a response.

In Georgia, where Gov. Brian Kemp has taken perhaps the most aggressive steps to restart the local economy, traffic to retail locations jumped 35% from Thursday to Friday, when his first easing orders took effect, and remained high on Saturday.

Traffic to retail spots in Georgia averaged about half the 2019 level from April 1 to April 19. The gap narrowed to around 40% over the weekend, the data showed.

Traffic to home improvement stores nationwide surged above 2019 levels for three days in a row, ending Saturday, in at least 18 states, the strongest such jump since late March.

Some of those states, such as South Dakota, never imposed stay-at-home orders.

The increase in traffic also extended to states like Ohio and Wisconsin, which have begun allowing a broader range of stores to begin restoring operations.

Recent U.S. economic data has generally painted a bleak picture as mandated shutdowns and weak demand have led to a massive 26 million new unemployment claims over the last four weeks.

Across many industries, lockdowns are still severe. Visits to restaurants, hotels and clothing stores remained roughly 80 percent below 2019 levels, the Unacast data showed.

Reporting by Howard Schneider; Editing by Heather Timmons and Dan Grebler

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