Counting customers has always been part of the retail business. But early methods weren't exactly cutting-edge: Bored traffic monitors stood for hours outside malls and retail stores, using clipboards and handheld “clickers” to count visitors as they walked in and out. This labor-intensive approach led to a lot of inaccuracy.

But today's people-counting technologies offer more information and greater accuracy than ever before. Combining the Internet with smarter systems and faster computers, companies such as Roth Bros., RCT Systems, HeadCount Systems, and ShopperTrak continue to refine the science of monitoring pedestrian traffic.

Their aim is to meet the varied needs of executives in all aspects of retail real estate, from leasing, marketing and finance professionals to mall managers and corporate decision-makers. “We can now process much more information in far less time,” notes Todd Hansel, national sales manager for DigiCount, a traffic-monitoring system sold by Youngstown, Ohio-based Roth Bros. “That's the key.”

The latest

Recent advances in technology have enabled these companies to take their products in new directions — literally. DigiCount, for example, has moved beyond just counting how many people go into or come out of a store. “We're now able to count in multiple directions,” Hansel explains. “We can actually determine whether someone went into an area and then turned to the right or to the left or went straight.”

The DigiCount system analyses video images using a sophisticated algorithm. It can be placed anywhere inside a mall or retail store. “We can track flow within highly specific areas. Let's say we put a camera outside a key tenant's store,” Hansel continues. “We can not only tell how many people go into that store, we can tell how many people walk by the store and how many don't go in. This feature is something that we've had for approximately the past year.”

Better technology also led to another relatively new DigiCount feature — the ability to adjust to significant changes in lighting. “If you have a lot of skylights or a lot of glass, then when the sun goes down, when a storm blows in, or you have some other significant change in the external lighting conditions, that can play havok with your counts,” Hansel says. “But we now have a very advanced program that can adjust for changes in lighting with a high degree of accuracy.” The technology gives DigiCount an edge over many competing traffic-monitoring systems, Hansel adds.

Adding the Internet

The Internet, too, has added new capabilities to many traffic-monitoring systems. For example, DigiCount, HeadCount Systems and other firms now offer real-time remote viewing, which eliminates the need for mailing of faxing written traffic-count reports. “Take the example of a shopping center company with 40 or 50 properties across the country,” says John Plainos, president of Wilmington, Del.-based HeadCount Systems North America. “Using a password, executives with that company can log into the system from anywhere and view the traffic at any of those properties in real time.”

Such information can also be customized. “You might have a leasing agent in a corporate office meeting with a tenant,” Hansel says. “That leasing agent could click on a report and show the tenant that, as of 1 p.m. today, ‘X’ number of people have come in. And then the leasing agent could show the tenant the historical traffic for the entire center, or the flow at any number of other locations within that center that are being measured by DigiCount.”

The traffic flows could also be integrated with data from POS machines, daily sales report programs, and other financial systems. “That's where it really becomes meaningful, to compare revenue to traffic,” Hansel says.

Specialty leasing

These systems help shopping center executives direct visitors toward specific areas of the mall. For example, popular specialty leasing vendors could be placed in slow areas to boost surrounding tenants' business. Hard data from the traffic-counting system could also be used to counter excuse-prone, under-performing retailers.

“When a shopping center puts in a counting system, they're usually doing it because tenants are complaining that there isn't enough traffic in the mall,” notes Hansel. “Then, once the system is in place and measuring traffic, the tenants might say, ‘Well, there's no traffic in my corridor. I'm in the dead area.’ Everyone is always in the worst area, right?”

Armed with data from a traffic-monitoring system, however, malls can work with retailers to find the real cause of the problem.

On the horizon

Count on traffic-counting companies to continue to expand their services. Chicago-based RCT, for example, now sells weekly reports combining RCT's traffic statistics with the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi's chain store sales data. The goal is to create a national benchmark for sales per visitor. HeadCount uses its technology to beef up client security by monitoring, not only where visitors go in the mall, but also where they commit crimes. And DigiCount is developing systems that will measure how long customers stand in front of advertisements in malls and retail stores. Clipboards and clickers, it seems, are a thing of the past.