Shopper-Counting Proptech Repurposed to Track Covid in Retail

Pandemic has breathed new life into decades-old video proptech used to track shoppers in stores

by Joan Verdon in Forbes on June 28, 2020


For retailers, knowing how many shoppers were in their stores at any given moment and what they were doing used to be a matter of profit and loss. Now it’s a matter of life and death.

Video cameras and traffic-counting systems retailers have had in place for decades are being re-deployed in the Covid-19 era to monitor compliance with occupancy and social distancing rules and as health screeners that can alert a manager if someone with an elevated temperature enters a store.

Pre-pandemic, stores primarily used these traffic counting proptech for labor scheduling (to make sure they had the right number of workers to meet expected demand) and to calculate conversion rates (the percentage of shoppers who entered the store who actually bought something).

But with states and cities restricting indoor occupancy rates, and retailers adopting their own guidelines for occupancy and social distancing, those technologies have been turned into Covid-19 compliance tools.

Retailers are also exploring Covid 19 traffic monitoring solutions being adopted by office buildings and airports, such as mobile apps that conduct health screenings and that let pre-approved visitors open doors or activate elevators with their phones.

proptech-tracking-covid-in-retail
Sensormatic Solutions has added thermal imaging cameras to the services its provides retailers as … [+] SENSORMATIC

Sensormatic Solutions, the retail services division of Johnson Controls, responded to the pandemic by expanding its ShopperTrak customer-counting and data services to include Covid 19 occupancy compliance, temperature monitoring, and other safety precautions.

“We pivoted pretty quickly on all of these things. As soon as Covid-19 happened we saw that there was going to be a need for them,” said Brent Brown, vice president and general manager, North America, for Sensormatic.

The initial surge in demand for the Covid-19 solutions came from essential retailers who needed to control the crowds of shoppers rushing to their stores. Then it shifted to the non-essential retailers who needed to prepare to reopen, he said.

Some of those solutions are the result of tweaking the technology Sensormatic already had in place in hundreds of stores, thanks to its ShopperTrak brand.

ShopperTrak, which has been selling traffic-counting tech and analytics to stores since 1995, became part of the Sensormatic portfolio after Tyco, which owned ShopperTrak, merged with Johnson Controls in 2016.

ShopperTrak is known for its “Busiest Shopping Days” forecasts each holiday season and for its traffic reports about Black Friday turnouts.

When ShopperTrak first began rolling out its shopper-counting sensors in the 1990s, it had to explain that the box-like devices, about the size of a smoke detector, they were installing on store walls and ceilings weren’t cameras that were filming customers, but rather video sensors that registered when individuals walked into a store and fed that anonymous information to a computer program that analyzed it.

But news stories about the system invariably triggered reactions from shoppers like “I don’t want my store spying on me.”

ShopperTrak’s slogan in the early days was “Making every shopper count” and it sold the concept to retailers using the argument that they were vastly underestimating the number of shoppers entering their stores and as a result vastly over-estimating their conversion rate.

In an interview I did with the director of the ShopperTrak East Coast regional office in 1999, he said retail executives typically estimated that about 50% of the shoppers who entered their stores bought something. The ShopperTrak sensors showed the conversion rate was closer to 10%.

The reaction from retailers, the ShopperTrak executive said, was, “No way is my traffic that high.” Some even demanded ShopperTrak verify the numbers its sensors were collecting by conducting backup counting with low-tech, hand-held clickers.

ShopperTrak’s mission in the early days was convincing retailers that the key to growing sales wasn’t bringing in more shoppers with sales and promotions, but by taking better care of the shoppers they already had, and making sure fewer left the store empty-handed.

A ShopperTrak case study found that when a discount store doubled the number of weekly shoppers, its conversion rate fell from 53% to 23%, and the average spend per customer dropped more than 50%.

Now, ShopperTrak and Sensormatic have a new mission: to use their tech to help shoppers feel safe, and to help stores reopen.

Sensormatic is leveraging the traffic counting cameras and sensors it already had in place in its clients’ stores to create real time occupancy and social distancing density reports for those retailers. Stores that have to restrict traffic to 25% or 50% of capacity get alerts when the number of shoppers approaches those thresholds.

One solution Sensormatic has created, Brown said, is a traffic light system that collects occupancy data and uses traffic signals—red for wait and green for enter—to regulate traffic at a store entrance.

Sensormatic doesn’t reveal its clients, but it said that customers using the real-time occupancy solution in response to the pandemic include a U.S. mall owner and operator, a U.S. off-price department store chain, a national home goods retailer, a home furnishings chain, and telecommunications providers.

Sensormatic also is providing thermal imaging cameras that can detect shoppers with elevated temperatures.

It also has partnered with location analytics company Unacast to help retailers better predict how many shoppers to expect when their stores reopen, and to decide which store locations to reopen first. Unacast collects anonymous data from mobile phones to track movements by consumers and non-essential store visits. It launched a Social Distancing Scorecard in March that gives states and counties a grade passed on social distancing behavior in relation to new Covid-19 cases.

STrak Occupancy Compliance Reporting by sensormatic Solutions
Sensormatic Solutions has created a dashboard that shows in real-time when store occupancy levels … [+] SENSORMATIC SOLUTIONWS

Sensormatic is seeing demand for its traffic counting and people monitoring systems from non-retail users as a result of the pandemic. Brown said the company is getting requests from office buildings, entertainment venues, casinos, and sport complexes. A company spokesperson said it is also seeing demand from libraries, schools, and even prisons.

Covid-19 related solutions are likely to be a growth market for all companies in the building security and safety space. And companies that previously focused on non-retail clients are seeing new interest from retailers.

Clear, the biometrics identity platform that lets travelers bypass TSA lines at airports, has created a Health Pass feature to enable users to store their Covid-19 test results, complete a real-time health quiz, and be cleared for entry into a building at a Clear scanning station.

While Clear hasn’t announced any retail users of Health Pass yet, the company is finalizing partnerships with major restaurant groups, office buildings, and sports franchises, a Clear spokesperson said.

Kastle Systems International, which specializes in security and video surveillance for office and residential buildings, has launched a four-pronged Kastle Safe Spaces program that includes mobile apps that provide touch-less door opening and elevator activation for pre-screened employees and visitors, and can monitor employees for social distancing and assist in contact tracing.

A graphic on the Kastle website envisions the Covid-19 compliant office lobby with an entrance checkpoint for health screening and temperature readings; a FastPass lane for app users that have passed a health screening, or have submitted antibody test results; doors that open with a wave of a phone; sanitation stations offering masks and gloves to visitors; and a guard limiting elevator occupancy. In the future, Kastle suggests, that typical lobby could include a virus testing station.

Haniel Lynn, CEO of Kastle, said survey data showed the top concern of returning office employees was making sure that sick and symptomatic people were being screened and not entering the workplace. More than two thirds said that “unless a building or company had that, it would be a show stopper for them to come back to work,” Lynn said.

The feedback from employees at buildings that have employed the new measures, such as at the Nestle U.S headquarters in Arlington, VA, operated by commercial real estate company Monday Properties, has been positive, he said.

“It might involve more steps that they used to have to take, but it makes them feel more comfortable” about their safety, he said.

Like Sensormatic and Clear, Kastle is getting inquiries from new types of potential customers—such as an airport and an art museum—since the company launched its Covid 19 solutions.

“Everybody is trying to figure out how to protect their space. And they know that people have to get back into whatever space that is,” he said. “They’re thinking about how to do it and thinking differently about different technologies.”

Thinking differently about retail could mean a future that includes mobile apps that open mall doors, enable touch-less payment, identify shoppers that are pre-screened and authorized to try on clothes in the dressing rooms, or alert you when the store you are in has become too crowded for your social distancing comfort.

Those may sound as futuristic and intrusive as the ShopperTrak people-counting sensors did back in 1995. But if retailers decide they help the bottom line, they could become as commonplace as those ubiquitous traffic counters.

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