How Big Data Is Leaving Shopping Centers Holding All the Cards


Recently, we at Alexander Babbage have been reviewing ROI that shopping centers can reap when they invest in research. Today, we are looking at how shopping centers are using big data to increase their bargaining power.

For years now, retailers have used online sales, member programs and credit card transactions to build sophisticated customer files By combining that information with traditional trade areas, they can determine where their brick-and-mortar stores are going to thrive and make site selections decisions with a higher level of confidence.  It’s put developers at a disadvantage because they don’t have a traditional “customer’—a shopper file with key metrics including frequency of visits or dwell time.

With big data and tools like TruTrade™, developers have access to this information not only for their own shoppers but for their competitors’ centers, too. The ability to compare frequency, spend, and where the shoppers are actually coming from with competing developments allows the pendulum to swing back in the developers’ favor.

What we’re seeing today is that data is an arms race. Retailers have bulked up on customer data, which benefits developers most when there are limited new properties coming to market—something we all saw between 2010 and 2015. But with a lot more development and redevelopment in the marketplace right now, there is more gross leasable area (GLA) coming to market. The smart developers are the ones stocking up on their own arms—in this case, their own data analytics—to put themselves on a level playing field with retailers and to ensure that they are pricing their space correctly. This gets deals done and maximizes their return on investment—not just their investment in research, but their investment in the property as a whole.

Stop bluffing and invest in big data—your deal-making will be better for it.

Your trade area approach probably needs a makeover.

pexels-photo-88725-largeThe retail industry is going through a lot of disruption. As we at Alexander Babbage continue to push the boundaries on consumer insights, it has become apparent that many shopping centers do not understand the ROI that an investment in state-of-the-art research can provide. During the next several weeks, we will break down the ways research like TruTrade™ technology can change the way shopping centers do business.

First up, we are calling for the end of traditional trade areas. As retailers begin to bulk up their online offerings, they are recognizing the importance of building certain kinds of relationships with consumers: deepening relationships with existing consumers, striking up new rapport with potential consumers, and winning back old customers by identifying why they left. This is easy to track in online retail sales, but in bricks and mortar sales, there has never been an efficient way to organize this information.

Instead, bricks and mortar retailers rely on store performance and the people who live in the market, known as the trade area. The problem here is that the actual shoppers in a trade area are anyone’s guess. Sure, throwing a three-mile ring or a 20-minute drive time around the shopping center might tell you who has the easiest path to becoming a shopper, but it does not tell you who the actual consumers are. Are they young people? Are they high-income? Are they bargain shoppers, or are they looking for high-end shops? Without data, we do not know. But in all of the years we have conducted shopping center studies , what we do know for certain is that the makeup of the shopping center consumer base is different from the makeup of the trade area. For years, the term “trade area” has been used as a proxy for the actual shopper. Having the actual shopper data, though, can increase the value of the space at your shopping center exponentially.

For example, say you have a shopping center in a trade area that contains equal parts Millennials, Generation X, and Boomers, but the restaurants at your center attract an actual consumer base of 50% Millennials, 30% Generation X, and 20% Boomers.  If you are using just the trade area to sell a Millennial-happy potential tenant on your center, you are approaching the conversation without the data that could seal the deal, maximize your rent or increase the tenant contribution – vastly underserving your bottom line.

With the use of mobile data in our TruTrade™ technology, centers not only can strengthen their own hand at the bargaining table, but they also can call the bluff of their competitors. Rather than relying on educated guesses or imaginary circles on maps, centers can use research to show potential tenants how their trade area compares to that of the competition and make the case that their actual consumer base is the one that the tenant wants.


Take, for example, the above TruTrade™ map of Avalon. While the mixed-use center does draw consumers from its traditional trade area, its penetration of the market spans far beyond it, too. As shoppers from further away continue to flock to the North Atlanta shopping center, research resources like TruTrade™ can give them the tools to sell their actual customer base to potential tenants.


What competitive advantage is your center leaving on the table?

Shining a Light – Alexander Babbage’s Jane Lisy helps landlords figure out Big Data (SCT Magazine)

Written by Rebecca Meiser and published in the September 2016 issue of SCT Magazine.


Though Jane Lisy’s official title at research and consulting firm Alexander Babbage is executive retail strategist, “interpreter” might better describe her role, she says. “There’s a huge unbelievable flood of data that’s now available to retailers,” said Lisy, who helps developers and retailers to adopt new technology and digital channels to better understand their customers. “The problem is, it’s too much data — it’s like trying to drink out of a fire hose.”

Lisy understood from the beginning the power of technology and Big Data to help glean information about consumer behavior, according to at least one observer. “Jane was never wedded to the past,” said James A. Ratner, chairman and CEO of Forest City Realty Trust’s commercial division. Lisy spent nearly three decades at Forest City before striking out on her own for a time and then joining Alexander Babbage last year. “She was always out there trying to find something new, and when she discovered it, she was immensely persuasive.” Among other things, Lisy understood early on the power of social media to engage customers, he says, and at her urging, Forest City hired a vice president of digital strategy — becoming the first developer in the country to do so.

Lisy’s pioneer instincts brought challenges both to her and Forest City. Five years ago, when she was the firm’s senior vice president of marketing, Lisy was feeling excited about the potential of an innovative digital-mapping-technology service her team was helping to pilot at two Forest City malls. The technology used anonymous cell-phone data from customers to help track their general movements at the mall. For the first time, shopping center owners would be able to know statistically how much time shoppers were spending at their malls, and whether someone who shopped at, say, Abercrombie & Fitch was also stopping in at Starbucks.

“We had rolled out a very detailed PR plan,” Lisy recalled. “We felt the best approach was to let people know what we were doing.” Unfortunately, when reported in the press, the technology was erroneously understood to be identifying cell-phone owners and their numbers. Soon afterward, one U.S. senator began raising an anti-data-tracking cry, and the Federal Trade Commission launched an investigation. In fact, the technology never actually identified any of the cell-phone users or their phone numbers, but the damage was done. “It set us back a year and a half,” Lisy said, clearly still annoyed at the memory.

Today most large-scale retailers and landlords use these data-tracking systems to provide better targeted marketing to their consumers, and Big Data analytics are driving retail leasing and advertising choices. “We now use it when we look at any of our redevelopment projects,” said Ratner.

Lisy’s current position joins together two of her loves: storytelling and quantified data. After graduating from Case Western Reserve University with a degree in communications, Lisy assumed she would be heading to New York City to work in corporate public relations. Instead, she went to Cleveland as associate director of retail marketing for Forest City. While advancing to senior marketing positions, Lisy discovered that she loved the creativity of the field, dreaming up such things as extended holiday programming. But she disliked the lack of hard facts she encountered when it came to measuring program effectiveness. “We’d do this big event, and I’d ask the marketing director in the field: ‘How did that go?’ and he’d say: ‘Oh, we had big crowds, and everyone was happy.’ But what I wanted to know was, is it worth doing again?”

Even when there is data, though, Lisy may sometimes harbor the niggling feeling that the information is somehow insufficient. “One thing that happens in the shopping center development world is that the development people will build a beautiful center, and the leasing people will lease it, but the minute the center opens, it’s the marketing people’s problem if it’s not doing well,” Lisy said. She recalls that this happened when a mall opened in a supposedly high-income suburb of Chicago and was not performing up to expectations. Lisy had a hunch that there was more to the income data than met the eye, and she reached out to Alexander Babbage for deeper insights, according to Alan McKeon, the firm’s president and CEO. “We brainstormed with her on how we could get that data,” said McKeon. But Lisy thought they could do even better still by finding superior data points that would get to the heart of the matter. “She can be like a dog with a bone, saying: ‘No, there has to be a better solution than that,” McKeon recalled.

Lisy helped develop a research tool called SpendR, which adds more data points to the household-income analysis, accounting for such things as family size, credit-card debt and mortgage payments. In the case of the mall in question, the model clearly showed that the center’s targeted customers were highly leveraged, with less disposable income than researchers had thought. “I felt really good when I could use data to explain what was going on,” Lisy said. “That’s when people start to pay attention to you.”

Cell-phone tracking technology produces similar illuminating moments in customers. “It’s gratifying to turn people on to the benefit of knowing this information,” Lisy said. “It’s always a great moment when I show someone cell-phone mapping, and they say: ‘This is so great! You mean I can know this information?’”

Alexander Babbage appreciates Lisy’s intricate understanding of its products and the ways that those can best be used to create better 3-D portraits of consumers. “She can look at something like traffic data, and say: ‘Well, OK, this might be meaningful if we had these other three pieces of data to go with it,’” McKeon said. “She’s an excellent translator from data to action.”

Destination Industry Dispatch: Happy Miniature Golf Day! (or, ‘Learning from The Shops at Atlas Park’)

When it comes to social media benchmarks, it’s easy to make examples out of the the centers and brands with tens of thousands of fans and long-held presence on many platforms. But many centers don’t fall into that category, and it’s possible to make an impact on social media even without a following that could fill a football stadium. Macerich property The Shops at Atlas Park is a shining example: with just fewer than 6,000 Facebook fans, the center has managed to consistently see high levels of engagement on their page, with many posts garnering hundreds of likes and a good back-and-forth in the comments.


One of the immediate patterns that emerged when we looked at The Shops at Atlas Park’s engagement data was that their top posts often centered around holidays—the center had more than 16% of its followers interact with their drool-worthy Fourth of July food post.

But it doesn’t take a big holiday or a big budget to add some extra occasions to the editorial schedule. Consider the post below for National Sister Day, which garnered 400+ likes, 33 comments, and a whopping 75 shares, which places the engagement for the post at 9.6%. That’s 88 times the industry average, which is 0.11% engagement on Facebook, and its success is partially due to the breezy call-to-action asking users to share photos of their “forever best friend.” A post like this doesn’t just reach fans: high levels of engagement likely placed this post in the timelines of many new users, and the center was able to align itself with a positive, family-friendly message in the process.

You can incorporate these kinds of engaging posts into your center’s social media calendar, too. Sites like offer a comprehensive list of reasons to celebrate. And while you shouldn’t go overboard on the random holiday posts, do look ahead and pick out the days that are most likely to elicit a response or tie best with a photo from your center.

So happy Miniature Golf Day from all of us here at Alexander Babbage! Stay tuned for more dispatches from the destination industry, and for more social media benchmarks and best practices, download our whitepaper from ICSC’s MOCIAL 2016 here.

Destination Industry Dispatch: 3 ways Jamestown’s Ponce City Market is winning at Instagram

This summer, Alexander Babbage appeared at ICSC’s fourth annual Mocial conference to present our Shopping Center State of the Industry report on social media use. The report, which is available for download here, is the first of its kind and offers benchmarks for audience size and engagement rates along with insights on best practices for shopping centers who choose to harness this immensely popular medium.

One of the more eye-catching aspects of the whitepaper was a segment on the success of Ponce City Market, a mixed-use development in Atlanta, GA.


People are front-and-center. 

By now it’s common knowledge that Instagram photos with faces in them are more likely to snag likes, but Ponce City Market takes this trick a step further, highlighting the people who keep the center buzzing by posting high-quality photography and short anecdotes to explain each subject’s significance to the center. Check out one of the center’s top posts this month below, and notice how the photography is eye-catching and the caption weaves the center’s history with the subject’s memorable story.


#myPCM creates community. 

Brands aren’t the only Instagram accounts looking for likes—your social-savvy shoppers are looking to get their photos out there, too. Creating a simple hashtag to establish a sense of community around your center allows user-generated content to do the talking for you. Ponce City Market’s #myPCM has accumulated almost 8,000 posts, ranging from #foodporn to street art, selfies and poised lifestyle snaps. Ponce City Market has aligned itself with a particular aesthetic in part by combining its own hashtag with other popular tags in the Atlanta Instagram community, like #weloveATL and #atlantabeltline.   


Block this way ????????#mypcm

A photo posted by s a r a l o n g s w o r t h (@saralongsworth) on


Calls to action take tagging to the next level. 

Sure, strong photography will get plenty of likes, but getting your center’s photos in the feeds of non-followers takes a little more effort. Ponce City Market’s top post in July — by a longshot — was a call to action asking its users to tag a friend they’d challenge to a game of mini golf. More than 1,500 likes and 148 comments later, the photo’s reach spanned far beyond PCM’s established audience, putting their new rooftop attraction in front of more users than they could reach alone.


We’ve got a hunch you’ve never played putt putt like this before! Tag a friend you’d like to challenge ? #weloveatl

A photo posted by Ponce City Market (@poncecitymarket) on

You don’t have to have a rooftop amusement park or a long history to cash in on these tips. Everyone can find beauty in the people of their center, align their hashtag with the aesthetic they want to attract, or call users to action with a well-phrased post. For more insight on benchmarks and best practices for social media, download Alexander Babbage’s full whitepaper here. For more information on how analytics and data can help your center hit its goals, contact Alexander Babbage here.

Social Media – Shopping Center State of the Industry Report

The following insights were gathered in a study conducted in July 2016 with the help of ICSC and the MOCIAL planning committee.  It was conducted among Shopping Center executives in the U.S. responsible for national and regional portfolios.  In addition, Alexander Babbage tracks and maintains social media statistics for Super Regional, Regional, Lifestyle, Entertainment, and Value/Outlet Centers.  These statistics are used to create Shopping Center industry benchmarks, identify highly effective strategies and provide comparison between similar properties.  All Shopping Centers over 300,000 square feet GLA are included, with the exception of those who had less than 100 followers (“Centers” or “Shopping Centers”).

Click here to view and download a PDF file of our findings. 

Focus Groups and Ethnographic Research for Shopping Centers

  • „In-depth insights into shoppers and non-shoppers.
  • „Studies are carefully designed to understand attitudes, feelings, beliefs, experiences and reactions in an in-depth way that is not possible through quantitative methods.
  • „Focus Groups consist of 8-10 people in a room with the moderator.
    • „As topics come up, the moderator may probe on those topics or use ideas generated by one person in the group to stimulate reactions from others in the group.  This structured but free-form discussion helps identify hidden motivations, ideas and consumer drivers.
    • „The client can view the discussion from behind a one-way glass mirror and send messages to the moderator.
    • „Topics for the group may include:
      • „Where do you like to shop, why?  What are your favorite restaurants, why?
      • „Which brands are missing from the market?
      • „What types of amenities and services will be core to your experience at the center?
      • „Is there anything you are concerned about when thinking about dining or shopping at the center?
      • „How do you feel about technology and shopping?
  • Ethnographic interviews or shop-alongs provide in-depth insights into a consumer during their shopping experience.
    • An individual shopper is observed in the moment during their visit to the shopping center, which provides the interviewer to observes as well as ask questions based on shopping habits


Contact Alexander Babbage today at or 404-961-7612




Who is not shopping at your center? Why?

CenterMAX™ – Trade Area Study?

  • Arm your leasing team with consumer and market data that will result in more lucrative and powerful meetings with prospective retailers.
  • Knowledgeably answer these key questions:
    • How can we attract more shoppers – and more of “the right” shoppers?
    • What attributes will position our center most strongly and what can we do to differentiate it from the competition?
    • Is our center meeting the needs/wants of the trade area?
  • ?Quantify your shopping center’s competitive strengths and weaknesses, the current shopping frequency of trade area residents and their reasons for visiting your center, and up to nine other competitive locations.
  • Learn which types of media will most effectively reach the productive shoppers in your market.
  • Gain insights into the types of retailers, restaurants, entertainment venues and events that will attract productive shoppers to your center.


Trade Area Study Photo



Contact Alexander Babbage today at or 404-961-7612

Gain a marketing and leasing edge by comparing your center’s geographic and demographic strengths to that of your key competitors.

TruTrade AreaTRU Trade Picture

  • For the first time you can quantify your competitor’s shopper profile.
  • TruTrade Area measures the mobile data traffic of shoppers who come to your center and competitive centers.
  • Gain meaningful insights without conducting shopper intercept surveys or license plate studies.

How TruTrade benefits you and your team:

  • For Development – assess the traffic in proximity to multiple sites based on the current and historic cell phone data to identify optimum development sites.
  • For Leasing – understand which of your competitors draws traffic from desired geographic and demographic locations to inform strategic leasing decisions.
  • For Marketing – use the data from TruTrade to identify areas of strong and weak draw and target communications to desired geographic areas.


Contact Alexander Babbage today at or 404-961-7612

Knowing your shopper is the foundation for making informed leasing, marketing and operations decisions.

CenterMAX™ – Shopper Intercept Study?

  • Be prepared for more lucrative and powerful meetings with prospective retailers and answer the many questions your leasing and marketing teams ponder daily, including:intercepts 2
    • What tenants do we want to attract?
    • What type of events will enhance our center productivity?
    • Which communication tools are most effective?

CenterMAX™ benefits you and your team:

  • Precisely quantify your customer demographics.
  • Identify the price-points and brands that attract the most productive shopper groups.
  • Define a current trade area for the center at the ZIP code level.
  • Identify key reasons for visiting your center – and for visiting competitive centers.
  • Quantify monthly visit frequency.
  • Ascertain expenditures – at store and category level.
  • Quantify the number of stores visited and cross-shopping behaviors.
  • Establish metrics for the property’s amenities and programs.
  • Learn how shoppers perceive the property.
  • Measure traditional and social media recall.
  • Understand social media engagement.


Contact Alexander Babbage today at or 404-961-7612

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