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Here’s a map story that has nothing to do with technology per se, but everything to do with perception, data, and accuracy. Most people are familiar with the basic world map they have been exposed to since they were grade school students. You see it in newspapers, online, in infographics, in books, and so on. The location and proportion of the continents are instantly recognizable.

There’s only one glitch with this map—it’s inaccurate. Because of the struggles of correctly translating a round globe into a flat map, land masses are incorrectly sized. Africa and South American are huge continents, but you would never realize that in the old map, which inflates how big North America and Greenland are, for example. One alternative map makes up for these disparities, but even it has issues, scrunching the areas around the poles.

Retail mapping suffers from similar problem. The maps that shopping centers produce to pitch their properties are beautiful and seemingly perfect, but they can be riddled with mistakes despite their apparent level of detail. The problem is severe … and potentially costly.

The Danger

I am always impressed by gorgeous maps that many companies in the shopping center industry assemble to market their properties. A stroll at the annual RECON provides an opportunity to survey these works of art, masterfully created by talented graphic artists and GIS experts.

But sometimes, as odd as it sounds, these maps are downright dangerous. Here’s why:

The process of creating these beautiful retail maps is rather intense. Usually, such a map is initially created in a GIS because raster images from Bing or Google become pixelated as the image is scaled up. Moreover, true geographers want control over the look of the map they are building. To achieve both goals, a vector-based GIS is necessary for retail mapping.

Although some people are masters of the GIS, most require another tool and sometimes another person to really beautify the maps. Graphic artists using a graphic design tool such as Adobe Illustrator or sometimes Photoshop are the last stop in the creative process. The graphic functionality of these programs allows the designer to make the map look “pretty.” When such a map is finished, you can see the hours invested in creating something so visually stunning. And the human brain has a strong tendency to equate level of effort with accuracy; therefore, beautiful maps are perceived to be more accurate than simpler counterparts.

But the fact is, retail mapping accuracy isn’t often there. I’ve seen some gorgeous maps from my area in which retailers are shown in the wrong location or are even missing a store. Unfortunately, because the maps look so good, people often aren’t scrutinizing them. This is bad news—you can understand the long-term danger of bad data that is masked by an otherwise impressive presentation.

Pretty Maps, Accurate Maps … Credible Maps

This map conundrum is one area where brokers have a better grasp on the situation. They know their local markets and usually get the data right. However, mapmakers for larger shopping center owners often are in a cubicle at corporate, far from the markets they are (potentially incorrectly) mapping. These designers are relying on third-party store location data, which can never be 100 percent accurate. The end result is convincing, impressive maps that are just plain wrong. If a retailer spots the error, your credibility suffers.

The key to making gorgeous maps that won’t hurt your reputation is current data. Shopping center companies using Trade Area Systems technology can provide a path toward this goal. Our solution provides the ability for companies to encourage their people who know what is truly on the ground in a given market to update third-party data from their smartphones. If given permission by the system admin, employees can move, add, delete, or edit stores. Mapmakers automatically have access to this improved data when they build their maps, thus reducing the odds that their creations are wrong.

Additionally, if an update comes from their data vendor, mapmakers receive the benefit of the latest intelligence but won’t lose their changes and edits. The new information will be available to the mapmakers, thus boosting retail mapping accuracy—and credibility—even more. Retailers will be impressed by the look of your maps, as well as be confident of the data contained within, which hopefully leads to faster and more favorable deals for your properties.

In retail mapping, do you find that you struggle more with accuracy, with aesthetics, or with both?

Joe Rando