Shopping Centre
Reading the signals - can mobile phone technology change the face of customer counting?
Published:  15 December, 2010

Since the beginnings of customer counting in the early 90’s, technology and accuracy has improved significantly, particularly in the last five to 10 years. Video and thermal imaging methods are tried and tested but each have drawbacks - now an innovative new system that uses the signal from people’s mobile phones to track their path within a shopping centre is on the market with obvious advantages. Could this be the future of customer counting?

Path Intelligence’s FootPath system delivers a whole new dimension to the traditional customer counting techniques in that it can show people’s movements by picking up signals transmitted between a mobile phone and its network. This helps managers to understand which stores people visit and how they move around as well as how many people come in to the centre.

CEO Sharon Biggar explains: “FootPath can show you who the key retailers are by tracking how many people go into a particular store and linking that with other stores. So for example, it can give you a percentage of how many people go into M&S and then Next or Starbucks. That understanding was never available in the past but tenant mix is critical and being able to see if retailers are integrated into the mall is a great tool.”

David Smyth spent six years as marketing and strategy director at Experian FootFall before helping the company to set up its US office as regional director. He now runs his own consultancy business. “Managers are always trying to know which shops work best as part of the tenant mix,” he says. “FootPath makes connections between retailers and if the data shows that everyone goes to Next, M&S and John Lewis then centre management can make sure they do everything they can to keep them.”

And there are reams of other benefits. FootPath can be used to monitor promotions, events and the success or otherwise of a renovation or extension. It can also help to advertise vacant space by showing potential tenants how many people walk past a certain unit and it can pick up where a phone is registered to identify foreign visitors, useful in centres with high numbers of tourists.

“Most managers know how many people are in the centre at any one time but they don’t know how long they’re staying or how often they come back and with customer numbers declining year-on-year it’s useful to know which parts of a shopping centre are working well and where improvements have to be made,” Biggar says.

Shoppertrak is the world’s largest customer counting company serving 350 shopping centres worldwide. It has been working closely with Path Intelligence on a department store project and the two are looking at ways to integrate their data.

“It’s a tremendous area of innovation and it’s something we believe in,” says CEO Nick Gowens. “It gives a much more complete picture for managers.”

But, as with any footfall counting device there are drawbacks. And questions are being raised about validity.

Gowens points out that not everybody carries a mobile phone so the data should be used as a sample. According to Biggar this isn’t a problem - Path Intelligence found that 96 per cent of people surveyed had their phones with them and switched on.

“You have to know how many people are in the shopping centre in total to work out the conversion rates so FootPath should complement traditional customer counting methods rather than either/or,” says Gowens. “Together they generate very useful information.”

Smyth has concerns about the investment. “I’ve heard it’s quite expensive,” he says. “And I wonder how you can work out returns?”

But Biggar is adamant that users are seeing a quick return on their investment. “Clients use the equipment in many different ways,” she says. “We’ve had all sorts of great feedback - some have said that it’s a powerful tool and that it’s amazingly versatile. One man even said he was so excited about it he could barely sit on his chair.”