The COVID-19 pandemic hit some Hobbs retailers hard, but a business consultant thinks he can use recent months of data to draw in more new businesses.

Aaron Farmer, President of Austin-based The Retail Coach, working with the Economic Development Corporation of Lea County, recently released a report showing numbers of customers at various Hobbs locations.

“This is good data we’re going to be able to take to the prospects,” Farmer told the News-Sun Tuesday. “They looked at Lea County as an oil and gas town, but basically, this data is going to show that even during hard oil and gas times, you still have a lot of traffic, a lot of retail opportunities. That’s why we have some retailers, some restaurants, that are coming in and continuing to look at Lea County.”

According to the report’s introductory page, “The Retail Coach is a national retail recruitment and development firm that combines strategy, technology, and creative expertise to develop and deliver high-impact retail recruitment and development plans to local governments, chambers of commerce, economic development organizations and private developers.”

While withholding specifics, Farmer said several companies, mostly restaurants, are considering opening up in Hobbs. Accompanied by EDCLC President and CEO Missi Currier in a recent interview, he encouraged local participation in some franchise opportunities.

“We have several franchise businesses that are looking to come into Hobbs, but they do not have a franchisee,” Farmer said. “If anybody is interested in becoming a franchisee, they can contact Missi at the EDC or me and we can try to get them hooked up with these businesses. Most of the franchise interest has come from the restaurant industry, such as fast food restaurants.”

Asked about the population question, Farmer said, “We look at the trade area for Hobbs that’s a lot larger than the city limits. I think there was some worry that the trade area was going to be oil and gas workers, but what we’re going to be able to show people with this COVID analysis is that the trade area is a trade area, no matter what.

“We’ll be able to prove to them that population exists here even without oil and gas and there’s enough to support these stores,” Farmer continued, referring to the double whammy of a pandemic and an oilfield slump that both hit the area in March.

Currier acknowledged some local experts feared with the oilfield layoffs many people would be leaving southeastern New Mexico, but the retail study indicates otherwise.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, there was concern throughout the communities there might be a mass exodus of people if more folks lost their jobs or were laid off,” Currier said. “We understand we lost some of the transient folks who worked in oil and gas and there has been some population impact. One of the things we noticed in Aaron’s report is our most recent numbers, shopping wise, have been very similar to what they were in February and March.”

Nevertheless, she strongly urged residents to complete their census forms before the Sept. 30 deadline because the actual census counts will affect funding and retail decisions for the next 10 years.

The Retail Coach’s “COVID-19 Retail Impact Analysis” looks at traffic at shopping centers, grocery, dining, superstores and apparel stores, comparing each week’s customer traffic since the beginning of the pandemic to the average of January and February traffic. A separate chart also compares each month in 2020 to its corresponding month in 2019.

“Looking at shopping centers, in June, you were only down 1% in traffic. That’s pretty amazing, giving the fact that we’re in a pandemic,” Farmer said. “In July, it was only down 14%, which is still not bad, whatsoever.”

The grocery sector showed more positive traffic.

“Every month has been up as far as traffic to grocery stores. I think we have the governor’s orders to thank for that with people not being able to go out to eat,” Farmer said. “They’re spending more at the grocery store. For July, your grocery traffic is up 23% year over year.”

Farmer explained the survey picks up and counts cell phone tower pings.

“We’re capturing everybody in parking lots, in drive-throughs, deliveries and carry-outs,” he said.

“One area that is down, obviously, is restaurants. Year-over-year, your restaurants for July are down 53%. Again, the governor’s orders are the reason for that,” Farmer concluded.

An exception, he pointed out, is a naturally designed take-out fast food restaurant.

“One bright spot in the restaurant sector is Sonic. Sonic’s numbers are way up,” Farmer said. “They were ready for the pandemic. They were set up for curbside service already. That was a bright spot.”

In many of the weeks observed, Sonic’s traffic was more than double the average.

Apparel stores, while having suffered reduced traffic early on, are seeing higher numbers go up this month, as well.

“Superstores, which include Walmart, have been pretty consistent. They’ve been down a little bit, but they’ve been pretty steady across the board,” Farmer said. “Your biggest taxpayer, from a retail standpoint, is probably Walmart. It’s good to see that as stable or consistent.”

Farmer pointed out retail recruitment is a process, not something that happens overnight.

“Retail is going to come to Lea County, but you have to continue to recruit and be diligent at recruiting the prospects,” Farmer concluded. “The one thing that’s positive is we’ve got prospects. We have people that are interested in Lea County. There are two restaurants coming. We’re just not ready to mention their names yet.”

Curtis C. Wynne may be contacted at reporter3@hobbsnews.com.