If you are thinking about putting a team member at the front of your store to measure occupancy, please don’t.

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Lauren Bitar

Lauren Bitar

Director, Retail Consulting

As retailers figure out solutions to monitor store occupancy, it is important to understand the implications of the current fix of manual counting. Here are my thoughts on occupancy analytics in the time of COVID-19.



Occupancy, the must-have data in the time of COVID-19

The worldwide economy has been seeing a glimmer of hope over the last few weeks, and the light is coming from the neon “Open!” signs from retailers scattered all over the globe. However as both shoppers and shopkeepers venture outside, questions over safety and transparency loom. One of the crucial questions focuses on how to manage social distancing inside stores, and to properly know that, one must know a store’s occupancy at any given time. As I’ve seen far too many stores already with an associate posted at the door like a bouncer, which obviously has its own implications for the health and safety of that poor person, I feel the need to weigh in. In this time where so much inexpensive technology is available at our fingertips, there is no excuse to be manually counting occupancy, nor trying to repurpose antiquated hardware to handle something so important.

It Doesn’t Make Financial Sense

Associates are the most expensive asset in a store, and due to extensive layoffs and need to conserve cash during the shutdown period retailers are working with a reduced workforce. In addition, social distancing in-store means that every associate staffed is one less shopper a business can accommodate. Using just the Federal minimum wage of $7.25 and assuming a store is open 8 hours a day, 7 days a week translates to $406 per week spent on an associate who can’t sell. Real-time occupancy with state-of-the-art-technology costs far less than this. The investment is paid for in weeks from cost saving, not to mention the added revenue from having an associate who can actually sell, or an additional shopper in the store who can buy.

It Doesn’t Make Mathematical Sense

Besides budgetary concerns, another reason why retailers are reluctant to move to these types of technologies for their stores is believing they can repurpose other technology or use a proxy to accurately count traffic.  “I can just use my CCTV cameras” or “transactions are a good proxy for traffic” are two of the most common lines I’ve heard, even before COVID-19 arrived on the scene.

First, while using angled CCTV or other monocular (one lens) cameras for in-store analytics and traffic cameras is a common notion, for most cases it simply doesn’t work very well.  There are instances where the technology works great for different use cases: both for the intended asset protection use cases as well as for use cases like merchandising compliance.  These are both obvious uses of monocular cameras.  For the best and most accurate analytics around shopper movement, however, you really need a stereo camera.  The dual-lens of a camera, combined with the overhead mounting gives the most accurate view of people moving through the location. The overhead angle ensures shoppers are not obstructed by taller shoppers and the dual-lens can better perceive depth (the same reason it’s harder to perceive your environment with one eye), ensuring human footsteps are being counted,  not shadows or other objects like shopping carts.  Accurate  (minimum threshold is 95%) traffic counting is crucial to properly understand occupancy which is, essentially “In” counts minus “Out” counts throughout the day.  Counting extra objects (or missing people altogether)  will lead to inaccurate occupancy counts.

Transactions as a proxy for traffic is another commonly-cut corner I’ve seen organizations take. Not only do transactions not equal traffic, the timing of the transactions is staggered from the time the person making the purchase entered the store (though if there is a business where every shopper makes a purchase as soon as they walk in the door, please let me know- asking for a friend). 

It Doesn’t Make Analytical Sense

Another fundamental issue- especially with manual counting- is that it has no use anywhere else. Data collected manually disappears nearly as quickly as it is gathered. Knowing real-time occupancy is important in and of itself, but to be truly effective the data should be flowing into various other tools and analytics.

First, traffic and occupancy detectors should inform a system to alert associates when the store is approaching the maximum occupancy threshold so they can manage the entrance as needed (instead of all day). This can also feed into digital screens outside or within your store to let associates and shoppers know how occupied the store or area of the store is. This can even be fed to apps so shoppers can know before they even venture to your store.

Second, this data should do more than look backward or just inform the current state. It should inform algorithms which can then predict future traffic and occupancy. This will help retailers staff more intelligently and allow shoppers to plan when to visit the store. This forecasting can, in turn, inform and be informed by a reservation system, where shoppers can reserve time to shop the store to ensure they won’t be stuck in a queue waiting to enter. Additional power to the models comes from being able to use automated data to pull information from all of your stores to better predict trends.

It’s obvious that manual counting cannot inform any of these important features, but it’s important to choose a technology that easily can through integration or API’s.

It Doesn’t Make Ethical Sense

This reason is last in my writing, but only because the previous paragraphs needed to give some context first. Person-to-Person contact increases risk. This is why stores have installed plexiglass protectors at their registers and masks are currently mandatory. So what is protecting the associate at the entrance who also has to interface with every customer? Or in the reverse, if the associate is ill, every shopper still needs to pass by them.

Cutting corners to using manual counting, repurposing old, top-down monocular cameras or angled CCTV also poses issues. Unreliable and inconsistent counting can lead to surpassing occupancy and putting everyone in the store at risk. Whatever the savings could be, it is not worth possibly becoming a local hot spot for infection instead of the place to buy the best product.

Use Common Sense to Save Cents (and possibly, lives)

Couldn’t resist. It is known that retailers have underinvested in analytics over at least the last decade, while investing in “shiny objects” because “everyone else was doing.” The touch screens in which nearly every brand invested were rarely used before COVID, and now will be collecting dust as no one will want to touch them. It is the time to invest in the right technology and change management needed to implement in organizations, there really isn’t an option.

Learn more about RetailNext’s Occupancy Tracking and Compliance capabilities.

Join the #retail, #inspiringretail and #COVID19Retail conversations on Twitter @bridgetjohns, @RetailNext, LinkedIn at and www.facebook.com/retailnext

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