Black Friday: The Data

Posted on December 5, 2011

Michael has already taken a look at the Black Friday data we saw in our regular reports, and the reasons why WiFi might matter for retailers like Macy’s, Safeway and Home Depot to include free access in their stores.

I’m going to look at this data from a different perspective completely, and think about what we can tell just from the connection trends we see, and whether there is an additional value that a retailer could gain from their free service in terms of what they can deduce from usage. The bar graph to the right (click on it to get a larger version) shows the percentage change in number of connections for each day of the black Friday week compared to the preceding week.

As expected, all the networks in this sample showed a drop in traffic on Thanksgiving day. Interestingly, not to zero, but that might be partially explained by all the connection times being recorded in PST, so some of the early morning Friday connections from stores in more eastern time zones would have been counted as Thursday connections.

Foot Traffic
I’m sure all of these stores have detailed reporting on their sales over this period, but I don’t recall seeing any of those counters at the doors to these stores that could tell them how many people walk in & out. Our simple WiFi numbers can’t give an absolute number of course since not every customer has a Devicescape enabled smartphone (yet), but assuming the sample we have is representative of the overall population, we can say that foot traffic at Macy’s increased almost 300% from the previous Friday (and almost 500% from their average level – Fridays are typically a strong day at most of the retailers in this list).

Likewise, despite strong TV advertising campaigns (at least in this area), it looks as though the traffic into Home Depot was unaffected by Black Friday. I should add that Home Depot is near the top of our most connected networks always, so perhaps their ad campaign was successful in that they maintained those high numbers on a day that people might not normally have visited them. They were #4 out of the seven on the chart in absolute connections, compared to #3 the previous Friday (their normal daily position).

Short Term
Once you look past that impressive spike on Friday, the numbers, even at Macy’s, for the rest of the weekend dropped almost back to normal levels, suggesting that Black Friday really is a one day event despite attempts to extend the sales across the entire weekend.

An advertiser looking that the success of their campaigns in the run up to black Friday can of course look at their sales numbers to see how successful they were. But being able to see the change in the number of visitors to the store might highlight other issues that are affecting sales (for example, I can personally attest to the fact that while I went into Macy’s in San Francisco, the lines to pay were so long that I did not buy anything).

Unlike Starbucks and McDonald’s, smartphones are likely the primary connection devices for in store WiFi at places like Home Depot and Macy’s since few people will be pulling out a laptop, or even a tablet. What that means is that the potential number of connecting users is much higher, especially when the network is part of our footprint and their devices connect automatically. While that means more traffic over the network, it also means a higher likelihood of getting a statistically valid sample to use for estimating visitor counts etc. And the traffic from a smartphone is unlikely to be that much of an issue for a good WiFi network, especially if it is limited to price comparisons, web searches and perhaps a few product photos being sent to friends and/or family members.

Beyond Black Friday
While Black Friday provides a great way to highlight this type of data, being able to track changes in the foot traffic into the stores in response to advertising, nationally or locally, is a definite value that could easily be derived from these WiFi networks. In a large department store, like a Macy’s, the counts could even be grouped by department.

Even day to day variations might be interesting to some venues, for example we tend to see a jump in McDonald’s connections on Fridays every week (Friday night treat for the kids perhaps?). Likewise, Sundays are always a little lower for everybody (perhaps a good day to run special incentives).

A discussion like this would be incomplete without some reference to privacy. What information does a retailer get when you use their network? Well, in the case of the seven in this report, they get little more than the MAC address of the WiFi radio in your phone from the connection alone. While these are unique, I don’t know of any mapping between that identifier and the person who owns the device (I don’t think the carriers even record the WiFi MAC address as part of your account information).

As with any third party network you connect to (open or not), they could of course see any non-SSL traffic sent to/from your device across their network. If you don’t use an SSL protected search, in theory they could see what you search for while in the store. By now, most email servers should be using encryption, as are most social networking apps, and of course, if you need to check your bank balance or credit card limit in store, those sites are all encrypted and invisible to the retailer.

Others retailers, like Tesco in the UK require you to sign in using a loyalty card account, so they can actually connect your visits to your account. It will be interesting to see whether that authentication step is too much of an impediment to widespread use (Starbucks here in the US started with that model and then dropped the requirement).