How to Grow Your Brand’s Footprint in 2024

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Growing retail brands are ready to welcome the new year with new sites. 

As market researchers and store operations leaders look ahead to 2024’s growth, many are asking: Where do we grow next year and why?

Leading brands are using more data every year to answer this question. In fact, data-driven approaches to expansion decisions are becoming the expectation instead of being a competitive differentiator.

Instead of relying on just a few isolated sources like demographics of a zip code, or searching Google Maps for competition, retail brands are now outperforming competitors by combining data sets to determine a location’s likelihood for success. They’re answering questions like:

  • What is the foot traffic to the area?
  • How far will customers travel to reach a location?
  • Does that trade area have the right demographics for our brand?
  • How have our stores in similar areas performed?
  • Where are competitors located? How successful are those locations?

By bringing together information on demographics, foot traffic, trade area, competitors, internal sales data, and more, brands are gaining higher levels of confidence when making expansion decisions.

In this article, we’ll cover practical tips, retail trends, and case studies for how brands can leverage and maximize the use of data to grow their brand in 2024.

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Retail Shopping Trends in 2024

To start, we’ll highlight a couple of the important trends in retail that we’re seeing in the new year that will affect how brands approach expansion:

  1. Consumers are spending more time in the suburbs
  2. In-store shopping continues to be relevant
  3. Specialty non-clothing big box stores are high-performing anchor tenants

Aligning with these trends helps brands confidently make investments for growth and position themselves in areas that have long-term potential for success.

Suburban Revival

One of the COVID-driven macro themes that appears to be a longer-term trend is the renaissance of the suburbs. With return-to-office rates stabilizing at 50-60% of pre-COVID levels in major urban markets, more people are spending time outside city centers.

We wrote about this phenomenon here and looked at how one example market, Philadelphia, had rising foot traffic in the suburbs and lower foot traffic in the downtowns.

Lower return-to-office rates in urban city centers is impacting not only office landlords but also retailers and food and beverage companies that rely on the weekday foot traffic for sales.

The implications for retailers is that, while urban stores may be underperforming, there are new opportunities to consider for brand expansion in the near suburbs.

Many brands have thresholds that they consider for market opportunity. For example, an area should have at least a certain minimum residential population, daytime population, or foot traffic level.

Several market opportunities are now emerging in suburban areas that likely exceed those thresholds, because workers are spending 2-3 days at home per week in hybrid arrangements.

Market research directors should be investigating areas that weren't on their radar previously, which may now make sense to evaluate further.

The fastest way this can be done is with access to timely foot traffic data that shows where people are spending time today and how that’s been changing over the past 3-4 years.

Resilient In-Store Shopping

There was a period of time where industry analysts predicted that online retail would diminish the importance of brick-and-mortar retail. This statement turned out to be only partially true.

The data indicates that consumers are increasing their online shopping while also still visiting stores. As an example, we researched the importance of Black Friday in the digital age and found that store trips are happening at a similar frequency; however, trips are shorter and spread over a longer period of time instead of point-in-time shopping on big shopping days.

We also see the trend of resilient in-store shopping validated as Direct-to-Consumer brands are now opening physical locations or are partnering with brick-and-mortar retailers to get their products on shelves and physically in front of customers.

As brands consider the investment of growing and opening new locations, it’s important to continuously evaluate the long-term sustainability of in-person shopping.

In our data, we continue to see a willingness of consumers to visit stores even in the digital age. By making data-driven expansion decisions, brands are ensuring their growth is focused in the places with the highest probability of success.

High-Performing Anchor Tenants

Many shopping centers have anchor tenants that drive foot traffic to an area. Retailers, in turn, may have strategies that revolve around these anchor tenants, like, “We want to be in an area with a Target.”

However, the current performance of tenants that were historically viewed as anchors is not equal.

For example, despite the boom in pet adoption during COVID, Petco and PetSmart have lower foot traffic in 2023 than 2019.

Perhaps counterintuitively, given the ease of purchasing books online, Barnes and Noble has 10% higher foot traffic in 2023 than in 2019.

Anchor tenants are an important source of foot traffic for retailers that co-locate in similar shopping centers or areas.

If your expansion strategy revolves around proximity to certain retailers or brands, understanding their high-performing stores and overall ability to drive foot traffic to an area can be an important determinant of success.

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Growing Your Brand in 2024

Each year, competition for high-value storefront spaces becomes more difficult as more brands integrate data analytics into their expansion process and find these high-value locations faster.

Maintaining a competitive advantage in expansion decisions means staying up-to-date with the most valuable and innovative data available, as well as knowing how to maximize the data’s value for your brand.

Taking into account these broader retail themes, along with the new and innovative data that is becoming more available and accessible to brands, we recommend that brands ready to grow in 2024 take into account the following:

  1. Be near your customers today
  2. Elevate your competitive research
  3. Develop a deep understanding of an area through data
  4. Combine your disparate data sources

We’ll cover how data supports each of our recommendations and the applications of the data for brands ready to grow in 2024.

Be Near Your Customer Today

Historically, where people spent time was fairly stable year-over-year. Today, this question is complex and changing.

  • How are work-from-home and hybrid arrangements changing where people are spending time? 
  • Which neighborhoods and communities are most impacted by this change? 
  • Which areas have grown and now represent sustainable market opportunities?

Up-to-date location data helps brands solve these questions by highlighting the foot traffic to specific neighborhoods and how it has been trending over time.

The result of foot traffic changes over the past couple years is that retail and food and beverage companies are re-thinking the markets that make sense for their business.

Chipotle, as an example, expects to open hundreds of stores in “smaller” markets (below 40,000 population) and expects these markets to fuel its next wave of growth.

Brands like sweetgreen are also looking into new areas — the suburbs — to fuel their growth. Part of this move to the suburbs is out of necessity since the company may be close to exhausting its urban growth opportunity, but it’s also from recognizing that their target customer is now spending more time in the suburbs.

In an ever-changing environment, understanding current foot traffic trends positions companies for success. Here’s what that looks like in practice.

Let’s say we’re considering expansion into the Boston metro area. Where are people spending time in Boston in 2023?

We looked at not just where people are spending time in 2023, but how it’s been changing since 2019.

In the heat map below, areas shaded in darker red have a higher positive change in foot traffic between 2019 and 2023, while areas that lack color have worse performance.

In high employment areas, foot traffic is lower than pre-COVID, as evidenced by the lack of red color on the heat map around the blue markers.

Conversely, in the commuting outskirts of the city around Somerville, Chelsea, Brookline, South Boston, Waltham, and Dorchester, foot traffic is up significantly — typically double or more — in 2023 compared to 2019.

A brand that served upper income downtown office workers may now look to the upper income suburbs where these workers are splitting their time between a downtown office and a suburban home.

For retailers that are looking at a metro area for expansion, foot traffic information reveals high-growth hotspots to consider, and these high-growth, high foot traffic areas often look different today than in 2019.

Elevate your Competitive Research

Competitive research is an essential part of deciding where to grow your brand. 

How many direct competitors are located in your considered catchment area? Is this a sustainable level of competition?

With location and foot traffic data, not only can we answer questions about where competitors are, but we can also understand their performance.

Is the store gaining or losing market share? How large is their trade area?

With this information, we can identify areas that are competitively vulnerable. 

Perhaps the level of competition suggests that an area is saturated, but identifying declining or low foot traffic performance at a competitor may actually present an opportunity.

Let’s say we’re a fast casual Mexican restaurant that’s a direct competitor to Chipotle looking to open in the Boston area.

Through the Unacast Insights platform, we can search for Chipotle locations and do a deep dive into ones that are near an area that we think is strong for our business.

We investigated the performance of one of the Chipotle stores in the Back Bay neighborhood and the foot traffic trend is in the chart below. What does it tell us?

We see high seasonality for our type of business in this area. Even excluding COVID, there are regular dips and peaks, perhaps corresponding to higher tourist seasons or university calendars.

Overall, the location has almost climbed back to its pre-COVID foot traffic levels, but it isn’t necessarily growing. This might be an indicator of high competition in the area that limits upside potential or a fixed number of people interested in this type of concept.

We can also use the actual foot traffic numbers to model out different “what-if” scenarios. 

There are ~15,000 visitors per month to this Chipotle. 

What would it look like if we converted 20% of customers to our brand? What if we converted 40%? 

This translates to ~3,000-6,000 customers per month. How many more would we need to acquire and serve to make it a sustainable location?

One important point to note when doing competitive analysis is that if a location has declining foot traffic, we’d want to ensure that this is not due to declining foot traffic or demand but rather a competitor not performing well. 

Checking review sites for recent feedback could be one way to investigate this question. 

While expansion planning, real numbers and trends at comparable competitors provide highly valuable insights into what your brand could do in an area and how receptive the area is to your concept.

Develop a Data-Driven Understanding of an Area

Many brands use a combination of demographic and competitive research to understand the market potential of an area.

One advantage of location data is it also gives robust insights into all of the nearby retailers and companies located in a potential neighborhood, in addition to the customer segments of the people that visit those locations.

For example, for a storefront opportunity next to a shopping center, a brand might want to know:

  • Who are the brands located in that shopping center?
  • Have they been experiencing steady or rising foot traffic?
  • What is the shopper profile for the consumers at those stores?

Taking this extra step to validate the surrounding retailers, vibrancy of the area, and shopper profiles gives brands more confidence that the area will — or won’t — be a good fit for them.

Let’s say we’re a fashion retailer considering a storefront opportunity in an outdoor shopping mall in Raleigh, NC.

We’ll walk through the data available to retailers in a specific area to vet this opportunity.

By navigating to the shopping center in the Unacast Insights platform, we can immediately see a high concentration of retailers operating in the area.

Hovering over the names shows that brands like Starbucks, Barnes and Noble, Cava, Talbots, and Sephora also operate in the shopping center.

Let’s say we feel we have strong overlap with the Cava customer. We can drill down into Cava’s performance to see foot traffic volume and trends.

Over the last two years, this location has experienced a rise in foot traffic from ~33K visitors per month to ~40K-45K per month.


We can build on this knowledge by better understanding the profile of customers at this location. The highest-visiting segment is Young Professionals followed by Ultra Wealthy Families and Upper Suburban Diverse Families.


Let’s take a look at another retailer in the plaza, Barnes and Noble. They’ve likewise experienced a rise in foot traffic and have a similar profile of top customer segments.

With this information, we can now determine whether our target customer matches up with the retailers and people that are spending time in this shopping center.

  • Does our product or service resonate with Young Professionals and Upper Income families? 
  • Are brands like Starbucks, Cava, and Barnes and Noble complementary or competitive to our product?

We can also have confidence in the fact that the data shows increasing visitation to the shopping center, a positive signal for any retailer considering a storefront opportunity.

Area research no longer means driving around at various points in the day to scout a neighborhood or searching Google Maps for which brands operate in an area.

Now, it looks like having all of the information available and accessible in one place, plus being able to dive into performance and customer profiles to determine overlap with your brand or service.

This additional layer of information helps brands understand complementary retail activity, foot traffic trends, and the presence of their target customers, all before making the investment and decision to sign a storefront lease.

Combine and Contextualize your Disparate Data Sources

Data is more powerful when it’s contextualized, combined, and presented in a way that all audiences can interpret.

Expansion decisions have the highest chance for success when viewing demographic fit and foot traffic trends and competitive intelligence and comparable store performance and other relevant data to your business.

On top of this, the disparate data needs to be turned into insights and action. What does that look like in practice?

For retail brands that are eyeing expansion in 2024, we recommend bringing together:

  • Trade area distance
  • Trade area demographic information (juxtaposed against the target customer)
  • Comparable store sales data
  • Local area foot traffic volume and trends
  • Competitor locations and performance
  • Area population changes
  • Locations of complementary brands

These data points can be broken down into the “nice to have” and “need to have”. For example, a brand might say that they require 25,000+ monthly foot traffic to an area and a nearby anchor store, at a minimum.

With clean data, brands can quickly identify the areas that meet “need to have” conditions while also prioritizing those that have the “nice to have” conditions that help ensure a sound investment decision.

There is rarely a shortage of data available, but expanding brands can benefit from focusing their attention on the data points that matter most for their business.

When looking at how to go from data to insights, another exciting and innovative way that location data is becoming more accessible for business users is through conversational AI. 

Within the Unacast Insights platform you can have a conversation with Una, a data analyst co-pilot, and ask questions about a venue or competitor like the visitor profile, visitation trends, or where people come from.

Powerful insights that previously required large and expensive data science teams are now rapidly becoming more accessible for business users. The result is a powerful combination of the impact of data science with the domain knowledge of business users to drive better expansion decisions.

Conclusion

Brands that are investing in growth in 2024 will find more and better data available to them than ever before. 

They will also find that a lack of using data in their expansion decisions may leave them vulnerable to competitors that are integrating these new and valuable data sources into their expansion planning.

Harnessing the power of data starts with having clean, ready-to-use data for an analyst or business user to access, followed by tailoring its value to the needs of your specific brand.

At Unacast, we empower brands with timely and clean data and data platforms to understand their businesses, research competitors, and make more informed expansion decisions.

Are you interested in what this could look like for your business? Book a meeting with us to learn more and explore the Unacast platform.

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