Is traffic a flawed measure of engagement?

Photo: RetailWire
Oct 01, 2018

Through a special arrangement, presented here for discussion is an excerpt of a current article from the blog of Nikki Baird, VP of retail innovation at Aptos. The article first appeared on

Traffic is probably the oldest form of engagement measurement, outside of straight-up brand recall. If people never come to your stores or website, you’re never going to sell anything.

What’s important about traffic — especially for stores — is not the raw number, but the conversion rate, or basically dividing the number of transactions by the number of visitors.

But companies face complications with the metric as store managers with bonuses on the line seek ways to make their conversion rates look better.

At one consumer electronics retailer I knew, the traffic counter was raised from knee-level to four-feet high to better gauge the conversion rate of families. The odds of all four members of a family of four walking out with TVs is small.

In another case, a fashion retailer heard complaints from its tourist stores that they should be held to a different conversion rate expectation than lower-traffic suburban stores because they saw a lot of non-buying “entertainment” traffic.

But all of a sudden the discussion has moved from traffic to how to compare stores against each other — and that’s part of the danger of using traffic. Traffic basically tells you whether people are aware enough of your stores or website to go there, and the absolute number isn’t nearly as important as the trend (up or down).

One thing traffic does not do, though, is measure the quality of the engagement. Did consumers stay a long time on the site or hang out at the store or did they bounce right back out? Measures of bounce rates and dwell times are sometimes needed to get to “quality of traffic.” And as the busy tourist stores pointed out, makeup and buying intent matters, so more sophisticated tools like video analytics would be needed before retailers can draw any conclusions about the composition of traffic and the sales opportunities they represent.

Regardless of method, the objectives for measuring engagement is understanding how to invest appropriately to support strategic touchpoints that may not directly lead to sales, but certainly support the customer journey towards sales as the outcome.

DISCUSSION QUESTION: What are the pros and cons of using traffic as a measure of offline and online engagement? What alternative or complementary measures of engagement may yield additional insights?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"E-commerce sites measure both traffic and conversion rates scrupulously, and brick-and-mortar retailers should do the same."
"Online retailers measure time, page views, cart size, etc. Similar traffic and engagement can and should be measured in-store."
"Traffic measurement alone is a hollow number whose value is learning if your traditional advertising and marketing is drawing more people."

Join the Discussion!

33 Comments on "Is traffic a flawed measure of engagement?"

Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Mark Ryski

Traffic is still one of the most important measures retailers should be tracking – and despite the fact that electronic traffic counting has been around retailing for many decades, I estimate that some 40 percent+ of retailers still don’t even measure it. Without traffic count data there is no way to measure conversion rates, and if you can’t measure conversion rates you most certainly can’t improve them.

As someone who has spent almost two decades studying store traffic and conversion trends (and authored two books on the topic), I can categorically say that today retailers still generally lack focus or sophistication in the use and application of store traffic and conversion insights. As Nikki points out, there are plenty of other metrics that are useful to track, and even basic traffic and conversion insights have become more nuanced as service elements like BOPIS have become a factor, but the entire area of improving in-store conversion rates is still a largely untapped opportunity for most retailers.

Peter Charness

Traffic is an important part of the customer purchase path. As “one” measure of marketing and brand success, driving feet and eyeballs is the first step along the way. Conversion then starts to illustrate other steps: is the product right, presentation attractive, price compelling, etc.? If you just measure “sales” you’re losing visibility into all the potential sales missed by failing to turn a looker into a buyer.

Bob Phibbs

It’s really a yes, and yes gauging foot traffic to a store is important and it is only one tool. Traffic without conversion is worthless whether it’s in the store or to a webpage. Ultimately all that matters is, did the store make a sale that day? When looking for the “why not?“ one has to look at what the employees are trained to do with the traffic. Unless and until retailers notice every nanosecond in their brick-and-mortar locations and craft an exceptional experience, oftentimes these become vanity metrics — a distraction from the training brands should be devoting to their most important asset: their employees.

Rich Kizer

Bob, you are right on. In my early retail days, I remember an advertising sales person saying to me: “I can pull many people into your stores, but that will not make you or me successful. The only way we both will win is determined by what your people do with those customers that I get into your doors.”

Tony Orlando

Pretty much sums up my feelings. Give me some traffic, and life would be great. Problem is traffic is down in many retail stores, so we have to fight to bring them in, and for me, I can win the transaction battle if I engage with my customers, as customer service is in my DNA. Retail is insanity on steroids in my business, and for many others as well, and how well the customers are treated still resonates with customers who want the personal touch.

Dr. Stephen Needel

Nikki is right that traffic is a flawed measure – but every retailer should be trying to maximize conversion while keeping traffic levels stable (at least), if not growing. Conversion is the magic number, regardless of whether you are a tourist store or main line. But comparing one store to another may not be legit. This is why humans get involved in the data.

Ralph Jacobson

Traffic as a pure measurement has its inherent value, however some of the additional measures mentioned in the article help create a more complete picture of the shopper journey. We need to take the multiple components of modern shopper experience analytics tools that show the quality aspects of the individual shopper and derive insights that lead to productive actions for the retailers to make.

Chris Petersen, PhD.

Traffic counts is yesterday’s metric and is woefully inadequate. Traffic count is analogous to page visits on a website. It doesn’t provide any insights as to where people to look, how long they engaged in each area or how many stops they made along the way. The smart retailers have already replaced traffic counts with location analytics flow using beacons to track cell phone flow in the store (anonymously).

Retailers like Apple and Best Buy have been successfully using beacon and location analytics to improve store design and results. Today’s in-store location tracking can “geofence” stores into zones and track customer interactions within a foot on a display. Where as traffic counters only tell you how many legs entered the store, location analytic tracking precision across the store enables retailers to test all kinds of assortment and merchandising parameters to measure impact on both dwell time and conversion rates.

Dick Seesel

E-commerce sites measure both traffic and conversion rates scrupulously, and brick-and-mortar retailers should do the same. Simply observing that “the store looks busy” is not enough to understand why some visitors are “just looking” and others turn into customers. More data-based traffic measurement should be part of an overall strategy to build conversion rates and transaction sizes.

Joanna Rutter
3 years 10 months ago

Agree wholeheartedly! Why wouldn’t you want a metric your online competitors measure religiously?

Joanna Rutter
3 years 10 months ago

Nikki, this is a great topic you’re bringing up here, which is that traffic for traffic’s sake can distract retailers with a game of store minutiae comparison away from the main focus of the customers’ experience. That especially bubbles up when the people counter you’re using is just plain ineffective. Counting people in retail means very little if you’re not also looking at that data holistically alongside location, weather, staffing, marketing — looking at the whole health of the store, not just the doorway. Traffic is a non-negotiable baseline metric for anyone selling things in a physical space. The differentiation for actually measuring engagement lies in the translation of that metric in the context of other operational factors, like weather, in order to identify true store performance.

Neil Saunders

Like anything, traffic is a flawed measure if it is not understood and analyzed properly. And gaining that understanding is more challenging today because of the way we shop. For example, someone who visits a store and then buys online from the same retailer would be counted as an unconverted visitor to the store. However, the store arguably played a role in driving the sale.

Art Suriano
I am a believer in using traffic counters, but it also comes down to knowing how to read and understand the data. Merely counting bodies walking into a store over a period measured against sales are not enough. I could have a situation where 100 customers come into a store and I’ve only made a transaction with five of them and another time when 20 people went into the store, and I sold to eight. What does that tell me? The problem I see today regardless of how many or how few customers come into the store is the overall lack of customer engagement. Retailers have put so much focus on tasks that store associates have become the masters of ignoring the customers to the point that not only do they not address them they go out of their way to avoid them entirely. I’m not a fan of the hard sell or pressuring sales associate, and that does not work anymore. However, it has been proven many times that well-trained store level associates who… Read more »
Jeff Sward

You can have robust traffic numbers but if it’s not converting into a ringing register, then the alarms need to go off regarding product content and staffing. And if the product is not right, the best (and most abundant) staffing in the world won’t solve the sales problem. And I would think comparisons between stores could be very valuable. Yes, there can be neighborhood differences in customer profiles, but I’m guessing that stores can be clustered into “like” comparisons so that content can be fine tuned and staffing and sales training best practices can be shared.

Michael La Kier

Traffic is but one metric for retail. They must also look at purchase incidence, number of transactions and purchase amount. These four core metrics can help a business understand their levers for growth and where they should focus energy. Only focusing on traffic misses the mark.

Min-Jee Hwang

The debate over the value of traffic is one we have in digital marketing all the time, just in terms of website visitors instead of in-store visitors. But the solutions are similar. Traffic is important but only as one metric. It’s a piece of the puzzle. You want to attract the right people–those who will buy–not all the people. Measure traffic to determine conversion rates, but traffic isn’t the end-all-be-all. Conversion rates are more important.

Bob Amster

Store traffic is one component of a list of relevant measurements of engagement. It is important, but does not stand alone and, using it standalone is a mistake because it is not completely accurate and does not speak to conversion of foot traffic to sales. Other important measurements are conversion rate, size of market basket by season, day of week, time of day, merchandise returns vs. size of original transaction and more.

Ken Wyker

Traffic is a key part of measuring engagement, but as the article suggests, it doesn’t measure the quality of the engagement.

The real issue with measuring traffic is when the retailer begins to see driving traffic as the primary goal. Too many marketers have forgotten that the ultimate goal of marketing is to profitably drive increased store SALES. It’s not to increase the measures of customer engagement.

Brandon Rael

The complexities of the modern shopping experiences require a new approach to tracking foot traffic. When we were dealing with the brick-and-mortar dominated retail scene of 20 years ago, there were clear-cut paths to tracking foot traffic, store volume, conversion rates, AOV, UPT, AUP etc.

However, in our mobile-dominated and forever-connected lives, the old foot traffic and retail KPIs are not so linear. Traffic is still a meaningful measure to track, yet your potential customer may be engaging with your brand in so many formats, channels and social media channels, so the path to purchase is very complex. There are methods of tracking the customer journey between online and offline experiences. As long as the customer opts in, retailers have a perspective on what the customer has browsed, whats in their wish list, what they have bought online or in the store or even via the BOPIS method.

This requires a significant investment in tracking tools and business intelligence solutions that can capture, understand, contextualize, then operationalize your retail strategies around this complexity.

Ananda Chakravarty
No metric is inherently flawed, how people use the metric is. Isolated metrics usually always fall apart when scrutinized, but combined metrics with analysis always provides insights and accurate predictions. And isn’t all this measurement stuff about making better decisions anyway? The real challenge is that traffic is usually not the starting point for a sale, yet many retailers measure only that — in online funnels and store engagement. Traffic by itself is a poor measure, but combined with other metrics becomes a powerful tool to identify interest in sales, products, the store and the brand. There is even greater importance depending on situational issues like the transaction frequency of the retailer. For instance, a grocery store with hundreds of shoppers per hour (where almost every group entering the store will purchase something) is very different from boutique luxury stores where the shopper is still very early in their journey to put down large sums on a product. Traffic counters in specific locations within the store yield great insights on interest within a department, while… Read more »
Andrew Blatherwick

Traffic is by no means a perfect measure of the trend in awareness and strength of a brand but it is as good as the other measures we have today. Also, the importance of knowing the traffic flow by time is to manage your staffing to maximize the conversion rate of that traffic. Many retailers today still plan their staff schedules based on sales and history and not the traffic flow resulting in an imperfect schedule. If you are understaffed at certain times of the day you will not optimize sales and this leads to a continued loss of sales. The ability to manage the quality of your staff and get the very best people on the shop floor at the busiest time is crucial to getting the best results out of your stores.

Adrian Weidmann

Traffic is one important metric in better understanding the shopping journey. I’ve been designing and conducting in-store shopper journey measurement and analysis for more than 10 years. Understanding the entire journey all the way through to their purchases unveils many invaluable insights. Traffic measurement alone is a hollow number whose value is learning if your traditional advertising and marketing is drawing more people. Focusing on more specifics — a specific category and select products within the category will provide invaluable insights and accountability to specific brands. In the end — whether it’s finding value (an ROI) for in-store technology or measuring the efficacy of in-store digital content and/or experiences — the numbers that speak the loudest in the boardroom are those that answer the question, “did it sell more stuff?”

Bill Friend

The key to traffic data is who a retailer shares it with, both internally and externally. By using this knowledge as a base of information for everything from shopper marketing and in-store staffing to merchandising and even loss prevention, retailers can better match their tactics to the needs and desires of the customer. By sharing the data with trading partners, the value chain becomes optimized for the purpose of pushing products and services down to the shopper and getting feedback from the shopper more immediately. This then lends itself to more collaboration and better returns for everyone.

Marge Laney
3 years 10 months ago

Traffic is a very important gauge of customer engagement for retailers whether online or in-store. Online retailers measure time, page views, cart size, etc. Similar traffic and engagement can and should be measured in-store.

A customer who enters an apparel retailer, looks around and then leaves without purchase is very different from the customer who enters, looks, gathers some items, uses the fitting room, then leaves without purchase.

The percent of door traffic that utilizes the fitting room is a very important metric that should be tracked. This customer is 70 percent likely to buy. If they don’t, the reason should be of great interest to the retailer.

The good news is that this and other valuable information is now readily available with the use of sensor technology in fitting rooms and on clothing. Gone are the days of the in-store experience being unknowable and unmeasurable. Retailers just need to make the investment in the technologies that provide this information and offer tools to act on it.