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Retail Store Heat Mapping: Hot or Not?


Store heat maps can be an enormous help when it comes to understanding the functionality of your stores and how customers behave inside them. But what is a heat map really? At its most basic, ‘heat map’ is just a hipper way of saying ‘a shaded matrix where single values in a matrix are represented as color’. In other words, retail heat map technology uses real-time imaging to track movements and assigns colors corresponding to traffic volume to each area of a floor. 

Retailers such as Samsonite, ATU Duty Free, and Sephora all utilize store heat maps to understand the in-store activities of their shoppers, test new merchandising strategies, and play with layouts. With such a broad range of retailers using this technology and a variety of functions in retail, it’s easy to understand how store heat maps have garnered industry buzz.

But what are the exact benefits of technology? The limitations? Below, we’ll shine a light on store heat maps so that you can accurately weigh the pros and cons and watch as the technology evolves.  


Benefits of Store Heat Maps

In-store heat map technology allows you to identify what on your floor is (and isn’t) resonating with shoppers. Here are the areas in which this matters most.        


1. Identify locations on your floor (and in your chain) that are or aren’t being engaged with.

Seeking to validate rent costs in each of its respective stores, Samsonite utilized V-Count’s heat map technology. In so doing, Samsonite gave itself the information needed to make critical business decisions regarding lease renewals and negotiations. 

Store heat maps can also show where within a single store shoppers gravitate. Prism, for example, can create heat map not just based on foot-traffic during a given daypart, but the frequency with which products are touched in a given zone. Research done by Business Insider shows that when a customer touches an item, it increases their likelihood of a purchase. Thus, this technology can come in handy when it comes to deciding how to structure your store’s layout. 


2. Test visual merchandising initiatives.

With store heat maps, retailers can harness data to understand what is or isn’t working in your stores. 

Put into practice, heat maps can uncover paradoxical, yet valuable insights. For example, the Manhattan-based retailer STORY utilized heat map technology to reveal that despite having a SpongeBob Squareparents Rolex merchandise in its own ornate glass case, the product was getting little attention

Heat map tech can also help you decide where and how to lay out your merchandise, as well as figure out which follow-on changes need to be made to your in-store experience so as to maximize product engagement.


3. Understand staffing needs.

Are certain areas or hours important? Heat maps can help you understand if you’ve got people in the right place. 

Heat map data can be delivered in time increments so that retailers can understand traffic not only for an entire day/week/month/year, but also during peak hours, sales, and other events. 

By utilizing a store heat map, you can visualize your busiest times of the day so as to ensure you have sufficient staff for each segment. Additionally, since heat map technology gives you a visual representation of your traffic, you can understand precisely where your staff needs to be positioned (eg: on the floor versus behind the register) in order to best service your customers. 

In any scenario, heat map technology takes much of the guesswork out of understanding the ways in which customers experience with and engage in your store. Through use of the technology, you can not only discover and solve problems you weren’t aware of, and A/B test hypotheses based on your learnings to maximize sales and shopper satisfaction.


Limitations of Store Heat Maps

For all of its potential benefits, retail heat maps aren’t “set it and forget it” tech. Here are some ways that implementing and reaping value from the technology can get complicated. 


1. Costly in-store hardware.

Although most heat map providers don’t list pricing on their websites, RetailNext estimates that installation for a relatively small store would cost about $1,000-$2,000 and that the annual subscription fee would be an additional $1,000-$2,000 as well. 

In a chain with hundreds of stores, this will quickly add up and implementation will take time. Therefore, the best approach is to pilot the technology in one or two of your busiest stores, all the while analyzing if you can realize increases in cost-savings and revenue commensurate with the costs of the technology. 


2. No clear calls to action.

You wouldn’t put someone in the cockpit if they were completely untrained as a pilot, right? So it doesn’t really make sense to use a store heat map if you’re not equipped to (a) understand what the solution is telling you and then (b) make the right changes based on the information you’re receiving. In order to make a store heat map effective, someone needs to be able to analyze the data, which takes not only time on an ongoing basis, but diverts attention from other initiatives. 

Store heat maps may raise more questions than answers: How often does someone need to analyze the store heat map data in order to make it effective? Not only that, but what’s an adequate sample size in terms of information? Who manages the communication back to and from stores to iterate policies based on insights? Since store heat maps don’t provide clear calls to action, the technology leaves open the possibility for errors, time lag, and subjective interpretations of its outputs.


3. The data isn’t black-and-white.

While store heat maps can offer your stores a level of insight that had previously been unattainable, the data itself is really only surface-level. 

While helpful, the insights from heat map technology are completely anonymized—you have no idea about the demographic makeup of the shoppers about which your heat map is collecting data. This means that despite having an understanding of your foot-traffic and how people engage with your layout and merchandise, you can’t be sure you’re even talking about the target audience.

For instance, the way a Gen Z shopper and a Boomer shopper interact or are drawn to your merchandising could be completely different. Since a store heat map can’t provide the level of insight that would allow you to understand how each cohort behaves differently, you’re effectively left to make a decision with one eye closed. 

To overcome this challenge, many heat maps solutions providers tout that their systems can be synced with store surveillance systems. But this adds another layer of complication to an already complex issue, and probably some additional cost, too. And most in-store video systems don’t cover every part of your floor.  


The Big Picture

There’s no doubt that retail heat mapping can provide you with valuable insights that can help you drive sales and test new ideas. The technology does have its pitfalls, however, so a retailer choosing to utilize the tech would be well served to be mindful of its limitations. 

If you do decide to move in the direction of a store heat map, we recommend having a good grasp on how you’re going to extract and use its insights. This way, you’ll have a greater degree of precision in the decisions you make based on what you’ll see.

CB4’s technology provides retailers with time-sensitive calls to action without a costly up-front investment in hardware. Learn more about how CB4 helps retailers optimize store operations to meet shopper demand. 

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