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Here are five words that may freak out some people:

People pick the best sites.

You read that correctly: People pick the best sites, not models, big data, or even a new Web service that will charge you $99.95 to tell you how great a retail site is or isn’t. Speaking of web-based site pickers, my hope is that those websites have a CAPTCHA that requires you to type a list of obscured characters to prove you’re not a robot. The irony that computers can’t read a few letters on the screen but somehow can perform retail site selection without a human intervening is almost too much to bear.

Don’t get me wrong: Technology is helpful. In fact, technology that can help to evaluate retail sites is incredibly useful. However, tech should only support decision-making, not replace people who know how to find the right sites for their specific retail concepts. If there’s no one in your company who can identify a good site, then hire someone who can. Not tomorrow, right now! Yes, I’m giving you permission to stop reading this post and go hire someone.

Now that all those people are out searching, let’s discuss how technology can improve site selection skills. Retail reps develop this expertise in a fashion similar to how they learned how to read. The variables—font, print size, color, whether there are wavy lines through a letter or it’s at an angle—are countless. Despite these variables, people learned to compensate for them in order to read the words.

Check out this image as an example. You’ve likely never seen this combination of font, colors, and letter substitutions, but I bet you can read it:


People are incredibly good at learning to recognize patterns. Whether it’s reading words or recognizing good retail opportunities doesn’t matter—if properly trained, no technology can beat the human brain.

So how can the human brain outdo technology? The secret is in the term “properly trained.” Retail real estate professionals understand the basic concepts that help drive retail. The trick is to provide reps with existing, high-quality information about current stores in a way they can use to learn what’s good and what’s not. These pros can take that and apply it to new situations, and then make smart assessments. The same goes for research people; even though their approach is geared more toward analytics, the fact that they need consistent, quality information doesn’t change.

How Do We Make This Happen?

It comes down to four factors:

  1. Improve market intelligence quality: If the site map or analysis shows data that doesn’t match what’s really out there, there’s no way to accurately assess opportunities. Therefore, the data must be right.
  2. Present information in a meaningful and consistent format: When people see something presented the same way every time, they develop the ability to recognize patterns in data. If every map has a different color scheme or break points for the same data, or uses different symbols for competitors’ chains, gaining innate abilities to assess sites well will be difficult for reps.
  3. Provide access to all relevant information: Performance data—such as sales, profit and loss statements, thematic maps, or report fields that drive a business’s success—for existing stores must be made available to decision makers so they may determine what works and what doesn’t.
  4. Provide access to market intelligence from anywhere: Allow market intelligence and store performance data to be accessed from anywhere, including on the road. This should be done in a way that is simple enough for people to use on a daily basis. The more they use it, the faster they’ll become experts.

Another option is to give reps access to an analog model. This will give them an opportunity to ask the model things such as, “Which of my existing stores is most similar to this site?” Access like this will help them develop the ability to recognize quality sites and gives them a check against their own intuition. This isn’t a perfect check, but it’s a helpful one.

Remember, surprising as it may be, people, not tech, are your best resource for selecting sites. Just make sure your team has proper, consistent training along with access to the data and analytics they need and you’ll have a site selection team that will be able to run circles around any website, model, or big data.

Joe Rando