It's been a busy five years for Path Intelligence, maker of real-world on-site customer tracking software.
At the top of 2011, the U.K. company bumped its facility up to 4,200 square feet in a physical move to new corporate headquarters in Portsmouth. And that's only the brick-and-mortar evidence of a technology firm that's been in fast-forward mode, globally, for nearly a half-decade.
Launched in 2006, Path Intelligence began with an idea: "Google Analytics for the offline world." That is, Path wanted to make a product that retailers could use to understand how their customers behaved: When did they come to a brick-and-mortar store; how long did they linger; and what did they do next?
The solution, as it turned out, was cell phone technology.
Path Intelligence's FootPath system uses on-site dishes at client locations to look for the signals that mobile communications devices send out to telecom towers. Every few minutes, a cell phone pings its closest tower, and that signal can be detected. FootPath picks it up and crunches all the data from all the cell phone users in a given area, over time, to show a retailer what kind of customer base is coming through their location.
"So for example, it can give you a percentage of how many people go into Marks & Spencer and then Next or Starbucks," said Shannon Biggar, Path Intelligence's co-founder, to Shopping Centre magazine, last year. "That understanding was never available in the past."
While FootPath won't tell store owners who it is that the system is tracking (cell users' identities are available only to the service provider of the "ping" signal), it will help proprietors make decisions, such as should they stay open fewer hours on some days, longer hours in the evening, or might they link their promotions with a store to which customers often go next, or from which they've come just prior to stopping in?
Industry leaders have taken to the idea, it seems.
Less than a year later, Research reported that the company partnered with Experian, maker of the long-established FootFall customer measurement system. FootPath was soon in place in four major U.K. shopping centers, and was on its way to Europe and beyond.
Currently, Path Intelligence has expanded its base of operations throughout the U.K. and into the U.S., where it works with clients such as JC Penney and The Home Depot.
For the future shop-keep, as well as for the entrepreneur, FootPath could prove a valuable planning tool.
As one searches for just the right location, getting a peek at how pedestrian traffic uses a stretch of shopping-mall concourse, or what kind of shoe-and-sneaker traffic beats a path around a given corner of Main Street, could take much of the guesswork out of smart location-making.
Here's an example: say Ms. Smith wants to open a nail salon. She can choose a spot next to an extant hair dresser or a location sandwiched between a lunchtime restaurant and a boutique clothier. The storefront neighboring the salon is cheaper than the restaurant-boutique location.
Intuition might tell Ms. Smith to take the cheaper of the two, and be right next door to the business that might drive some beauty-ready foot traffic. Or, it might tell her that the salon could already satisfy its customers on all fronts and that it would be stiff competition when it comes to luring clientele into a separate shop for nails and pedis.
On the other hand, what about the steep rent at the restaurant-boutique location; and would the foot traffic from the two equal customers for the one?
"The real problem is that it's been hard to quantitatively analyze this," said Toby Oliver, a co-founder of Path Intelligence, to the BBC. "People say, 'you know, I think this is the case,' but what we're able to do now is put some numbers behind those behavioral effects."
And so, in a decade's time (or sooner), the FootPath system may be so endemic to business and marketing locations that an entrepreneur like Ms. Smith can simply query a property-owner's database to see exactly what happens at each location, which has the highest traffic counts, when, and which one seems to gather the lingerers.
Since every 1 percent increase in time spent at a shop seems to lead to a 1.3 percent increase in money spent by customers, having a handle on whether a location is hangout-inducing can make a big difference over, well…time.
For a demo of how FootPath works, visit Path Intelligence's website.
James O'Brien is a correspondent for The Boston Globe, The Consumer Chronicle, and Boston University's Research magazine.