Having an accurate forecast of store traffic is an important part of setting staff levels. This is particularly true when converting store visits into sales depends heavily on consulting with in-store personnel. But how can a store build a good forecast? According to Businessweek, satellite imaging is a possible tool (The Most Powerful Sales Tool at Lowe’s: Satellites, Feb 26).
Lowe’s said on Wednesday that it has been gauging traffic at its almost 1,900 stores from space, scanning satellite images of its parking lots to find out how many shoppers it can expect at every hour of every day. It has also started syncing its parking lot observations with actual transaction counts to see how many people drove away without making a purchase.
The space snooping is a particularly great way for Lowe’s to manage its workforce, scheduling surges in floor staff when parking spaces are about to become hard to come by.
I find this a curious application and wonder if it is technological overkill. There are multiple technologies retailers can use to count how many people come through their doors. These range from simple electric eyes that count how many times a beam of light across the door is broken to advanced video systems that can distinguish adults from children.
I can see several reasons why Lowe’s may opt for satellites. First, they generally have multiple ways into the store and having people move between, say, the garden center and store proper may give them spuriously high counts. Second, their warehouse-like layout may complicate using video systems. Finally, and perhaps more interestingly, the satellite images may give them additional details. Lowe’s serves two distinct segments — professionals (i.e., contractors and carpenters) and amateurs (i.e., do-it-yourself homeowners). To a traffic counter, they all look the same but from the sky they don’t. A parking lot of pick ups and Sprinter vans suggests the pros are shopping while minivans and SUVs would signal a DIY crowd. To the extent that one niche needs different services (or has different expectations of service), the satellite images could allow more refined scheduling than mere body counts.