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Why do customers flock to one dress and ignore another? Stores turn to heat mapping to figure out.

When Combatant Gentlemen opened its first permanent location in Santa Monica Place in July, the store had many elegant touches: a sleek design, spacious fitting rooms, even an on-site tailor.

It also boasted a modern tool invisible to the average shopper: cameras equipped with heat mapping software.

The Irvine-based menswear company hoped the extra data on the movements of its shoppers would give its first bricks-and-mortar shop an edge. And indeed, over two months, heat mapping has found that Southern California guys flock to cotton suits — a sharp contrast to Combatant Gentlemen’s online customers, who mostly gravitated toward wool items, said Vishaal Melwani, chief executive. 

When those suits were moved to the front of the store, he said, they started “selling like hotcakes.”

Heat mapping, which at its most basic uses video images to visually illustrate the location and density of people, is becoming an increasingly sophisticated tool for retailers. Combatant Gentlemen is among the hordes of merchants adopting heat maps to better understand how customers shop in bricks-and-mortar stores and add more allure to the in-store experience.

Now mobile phones, ceiling sensors and even weight-sensing shelves help create richer and more nuanced snapshots of customer behavior; that additional data, on top of shopper movements, allow for increasingly detailed heat maps. (Heat mapping refers to “hot” and “cold” zones for customer activity, not actual body heat.)

Some firms are even combining heat maps with facial analytics to parse out which displays or products appealed to what slice of customers by determining age and gender.

“There is so much tremendous interest in this tracking, because stores are essentially flying blind,” said Chris Petersen, chief executive of retail consulting firm Integrated Marketing Solutions. “They don’t have all the bread crumbs you leave on a website.”

That’s become especially important as once-dominant retail chains see their customers turn to online rivals. In the second quarter, e-commerce sales jumped 15.8% compared with the same period a year ago; retail sales overall grew only 2.3%, according to the Census Bureau. Mall anchors such as Macy’s, Nordstrom and Sears have been struggling.

For technology firms that supply the software and cameras, heat mapping is becoming a big business.

Prism Skylabs has raised $24 million in funding since launching in 2011. The San Francisco start-up, which primarily works with retailers, installs cameras with heat mapping software and provides analytical services.

Cliff Crosbie, senior vice president of global retail for Prism, said many retailers come with a specific problem in mind. One furniture company wanted to know how many people sat on what kind of sofas. A sportswear company was eager to learn which shoes on a wall were grabbing shopper interest.

“We can tell which ones are getting touched a lot, what stuff is touched but not selling,” Crosbie said, which helps retailers zero in on specific problems. “Maybe the price is too high. Maybe the quality is not good. Maybe you don’t have a size 5 in stock.”

Over five years, Prism has attracted more than 350 retail customers in 80 countries. The company makes money by charging a licensing fee for every camera it installs. It charges extra for additional analysis of the data.

Some companies have seen immediate results from using heat mapping technology.

Two years ago, San Francisco candy chain Lolli and Pops rolled out a new box of assorted sweets — which initially flopped, said Marc Schwarzbart, vice president of inventory management and technology.

Many retailers would assume that either the product was a failure or that the price was too high. But by examining heat maps, Lolli and Pops discovered that fewer than 10% of shoppers were walking past the display holding those candies; a table was partially blocking that path. 

After the table was moved a few feet, foot traffic rose to more than 30% of shoppers. “We saw a dramatic increase in sales,” Schwarzbart said. “It never had anything to do with the product or the price.”

Such data can be used to inform merchandising decisions, which have traditionally been based on employee experience and gut instinct, Schwarzbart said. The company is trying to figure out what to do with the front portion of its stores — the heat maps proved they tend to be a dead zone because most shoppers do not veer immediately left or right when walking into a store.

“It’s something we are still testing and debating: whether it’s a space you almost give up on and you put products [that are] so specific in need that people who want it will find it,” he said. “The competing view is you put a product so popular up there, once people don’t find it elsewhere in the store they will find it there.” 

Heat mapping technology is rapidly improving, analysts said. When combined with analytics software, it can uncover a surprising amount of data about shoppers.

Cisco uses weight-sensing shelves and cameras equipped with mirrors to help track the entire life cycle of a product, from its placement among a row of goods all the way to the cash register, said Shaun Kirby, chief technology officer of Cisco Consulting Services.

The technology giant is also working with start-ups, including one that calculates shopper demographics by looking at their feet, Kirby said.

“Just by looking at the make and style of the shoe,” he said, “this company can tell to within 70% accuracy the age range and gender of the shopper.”

Other companies are focusing on faces, which is even more telling. 

Earlier this month, Kairos rolled out software that analyzes facial movements to determine feelings — translating into “a specific emotional readout” for retailers, said Stefanie Genauer, Kairos’ chief revenue officer.

An in-store display, for example, can hold a customer’s attention for several minutes, Genauer said, but it’s difficult to determine their reaction — until now.

“Somebody could be there and not have a positive feeling,” she said. “Was there joy or surprise? Or was it ‘this is disgusting. I don’t like this at all.’”

Combatant Gentlemen has combined heat maps with radio-frequency identification tags in all its clothes, giving the company a detailed picture over time of what products are selling, what items are being tried on and abandoned, which racks are luring customers and which aren’t.

By using the technology in several pop-up stores, Combatant Gentlemen found that West Coast customers, for example, like to put together their own outfits, while East Coast shoppers tend to buy an entire outfit as displayed on the mannequin.

Those insights, Melwani said, will be applied in designing the four shop-in-shops inside Bloomingdale’s that the brand is opening this fall, including one at South Coast Plaza.

“As a young company, you have to be able to do this quickly,” Melwani said. “Bigger companies use merchandise planners. We don’t have the money for that.”

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