Counting footfall 4.0: Reliable figures at little extra cost

The weekend is coming and it’s that time again: millions of Germans will be streaming through high streets and malls throughout the country. Just how many of them have, up till now, only been counted at irregular intervals? Not only retailers, but also municipalities and event organizers require customer footfall figures that are as accurate as possible (e.g. in order to determine the effectiveness of marketing and discount campaigns).

As the same methods have been used for years, innovations are now being introduced in rapid succession. Yet technology has both its advantages and its disadvantages.

It all started with the hand-held counter

One quick and simple variant is the hand-held counter, also known as the tally counter, as used by air stewardesses for example, passing down the aisle, checking the number of passengers in the aircraft against the number of passengers who have checked in. In shopping centers, pensioners or students, stationed at doorways, usually click a tally counter once for each person who enters. The great advantage here is that this method is easy to use for individual surveys. There is however a long list of disadvantages: Markus Wotruba, head of location research at BBE Handelsberatung GmbH says, “despite its labor-intensiveness and associated costs, the hand-held counter can only provide a snapshot. If entrances are wide or if there are areas that cannot be seen, accurate counting and the counting of groups is difficult”. The survey therefore is only useful up to a point, and is only suitable for short-term, project-based purposes.

Technical hitches

After the steam engine came electricity – a similar development occurred in the field of customer footfall counting. Modern technology enables continuous data monitoring, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. When customers enter a shop, for example, they pass through a light barrier installed in the door frame. Wotruba says, “The advantage of this is that poor visibility does not affect counting, and the expense in terms of staffing is minimal”. The same applies to laser devices. Yet here again there are pitfalls. A couple, or two parents holding a child passing through the barrier simultaneously may only be counted as one person. This can be a problem in particular when the doorway is wide. The direction of movement is not recorded either, so the sensor does not register whether someone is entering or leaving the shop“. One solution for more reliable and accurate data is provided by bidirectional multi-beam systems. By contrast with simple unidirectional single-beam barriers, people are detected individually and the direction of movement can be identified. Yet even this technology has its disadvantages. The installation costs are high and systems must be serviced regularly during operation. In particular when more than one party wants to use the data, it must be clarified who will bear the costs.

On the same wavelength?

In 1992 the first wireless local area networks came into operation. Gradually the mobile phone became an item of daily use. As these devices always have to stay in contact with a transmitter, network operators can determine the locations relatively accurately. This method of customer counting is not entirely suitable for retailers and municipalities. On the one hand, all data remains with the mobile network operator. Any network only ever covers a proportion of passers-by – i.e. the operator’s own customers. This means that cooperation agreements are necessary with several network operators in order to obtain meaningful data. Wotruba: “There is also the possibility that tourists with foreign network contracts will not be recorded. In addition to mobile phone technology, a light barrier or laser beam will also be needed as a reference point as the market share of the various network operators per location is not precisely known”. This technology therefore is not only very time-consuming, but also represents incalculable costs and major risk factors.

One service – many options

The solution could be a wireless local area network (WLAN). In 2007 Apple provided the first incentive for a comprehensive change in the mobile phone market when it launched the iPhone. Today, almost everyone owns a smartphone and many use free WIFI networks when they are out and about. By contrast with Bluetooth or infrared, this facility is usually activated at all times. So, regardless of the mobile service provider, all active smart phones connected to a WLAN can be counted. Logging-in is not necessary. As WiFi technology is widespread throughout the world, tourists’ smartphones are also recorded. This means that the technology is relatively cheap as in many places the appropriate infrastructure is already in place. The only disadvantage is that people without a smartphone or with the WiFi function switched off will not be counted.

Conclusion

With free WiFi in pedestrian precincts and other shopping locations, it is possible to obtain footfall data as a by-product of a service that is increasingly in demand. Special technology or additional personnel are not then needed. Without the evaluation of person-specific data, it can be determined whether the same device has visited the same location several times. It is a win-win situation. Users benefit from free WiFi, and municipalities and retailers receive reliable figures at no great extra cost.

Your Contact

Markus Wotruba

BBE Handelsberatung München
Brienner Str. 45
D-80333 Munich

Tel.: +49 89 55118-176
Fax: +49 89 55118-153
E-mail: wotruba@bbe.de