Decision Support Systems for Chain Store Real Estate

During the past year, the Chain Store Advisors blog has covered a variety of topics under the broad rubric of real estate planning and site selection.  Many of these ideas have been combined in a white paper released last month called “A New Approach to Best Practices in Real Estate Planning and Site Selection.” Sounds like a typical boring white paper title, but don’t be fooled!  The “new approach to best practices” is really a rejection of the very idea of best practices in chain store real estate analytics.

There are best practices for simple tasks and information systems such as backing up your data or verifying the accuracy of your locations.  However, for situations and systems that are complex such as the retail marketplace, it is impossible to create standardized methods and practices because the “cause and effect” relationships between things are too hard to predict and they are constantly changing.  A phrase used by people in complex systems theory is “emergent practices,” which describes ways of approaching and solving problems based on recurring patterns in data and collaborative decision-making.  Some of these approaches are described in the white paper. Continue reading

What Gets Measured Gets Done

Everyone knows the value proposition for chain store real estate research:

“If you avoid closing one or two stores it pays for itself.”

So why are people so hesitant to invest in analysts, predictive analytics, and information systems to support better real estate planning and site selection?

I’ve been asking this question for nearly 20 years, and I think I’m finally beginning to see the answer.

It’s about measurement.

Here’s how the argument goes:

Summary (simplified):  If we invest in better research, we can use a predictive model to estimate sales performance for proposed sites.  If we know the population and income of the trade area, the distance to our competitors, and the quality of the site, we can use the weighting factors in the model to calculate the sales potential.  We’ve heard that it’s possible to have a model where the estimate will be +/-  20% reliable at least 80% of the time.  In the past we have only been +/- 20% correct 65% of the time.

Therefore, the avoidance of bad stores alone will more than cover the investment in people and tools to build and use the predictive model. Continue reading

Here We Go Again

The economy is showing signs of perking up.

Although retail store closings are expected to continue at a strong pace in 2012 (see, many retailers and restaurants are staffing up for growth and looking for deals.

Is this the pregame warm-up for the next cycle of boom and bust?  Or maybe, just maybe, there’s a smarter, more disciplined group of decision-makers running the chain store companies today.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the chain store industry doesn’t have well-defined best practices in real estate planning and site selection.  In order to begin a dialog on this subject I have created a “rubric” that describes various practices at different levels of effectiveness that can be used as a self-assessment tool for people in the chain store industry (click here for the Best Practices Rubric).

There are only nine items on the rubric, so you should be able to complete it in 5-10 minutes unless it causes you to think hard about what you’re doing, which would be a good thing!  Simply circle the description of the practice that best describes your business and when you’re done, add up the points as indicated at the top of each column.

The total points will range from 9 to 36, assuming you complete the rubric.  Based on my experience and exposure to chain store companies over the past 18 years, I would interpret the scores as follows:

0-15 points:  If you are still in business, it’s because you have smart, street-wise people              and probably aren’t doing very many deals each year.

16-20 points:  You are about average for the industry, which is OK if you don’t mind being average.  However, you won’t be able to stay average without improving, given the the struggling economy, growth of “omni-channel retailing” and the new breed of tech-savvy competitors.

21-27 points:  You know that you’re doing a good job because you have made a conscious decision to create good decision-making processes supported by good people and good tools.  You are already thinking about how to stay ahead of the game and work smart, not just hard.

28-36 points:  The business practices of your company are truly “best practices” and you represent the elite of the industry.  You might be reluctant to share what you do because you know that you have a serious competitive advantage.  However, you will probably talk about it anyway because of the positive energy that market leaders generate with employees, investors, customers, and partners.  We thank you for your leadership!

I look forward to your public and private comments on the rubric and the general subject of best practices in real estate planning and site selection.

Breakthrough in Market Planning

I attended a franchise trade show recently and visited with a company that was selling multi-unit territories that had been pre-defined based on the expected number of development opportunities and their approximate locations.  The map they had on display looked something like the diagram on the left below, where the green and orange boundaries represent territory boundaries and the black dots are target locations for stores.  The franchise rep said that the target locations had been generated by a sophisticated modeling program and then field-validated by the real estate team.

A more traditional territory plan is shown on the right, where each target store location is a point representing the ideal center of the trade area which is a polygon showing the primary trade area.

I certainly commend this operator for using “best practices” in market planning by laying out their territories in advance and proactively offering them to prospective franchisees. 

What’s interesting about the map one the left is the way that the boundaries are just large enough to surround the points.  This means that a franchisee can select locations up to the edge of the boundary without worrying about encroaching on the stores in the adjacent territory because there is a “buffer” between the stores built into the market plan.  If the buffer is based on the appropriate level of spacing between stores based on the density of the area (e.g. urban, suburban), then it’s a great planning tool.

The problem with the traditional approach shown on the right is that franchisees in adjacent territories might select a location closer to the same edge of the territory and have significantly overlapping trade areas.  One solution to this problem is tocreate a second zone within each trade area that limits the range of choices for a site and creates a buffer similar to the one built into the map on the left.

This is the first time I’ve actually seen a map like the one on the left in a live sales situation and I believe it’s an important step forward in the state-of-the-art in market planning.  It certainly doesn’t eliminate every issue that can arise between franchisees in adjacent territories, but it establishes some clear expectations at the beginning of the process that reduces the chances of conflict at some point in the future.

Freedom through Structure: Optimizing Chain Store Real Estate Processes

You hear the complaints all the time.

“The field people only react to the deals that the brokers present to them.  They don’t take the market planners seriously when we target certain trade areas.”

“The analysts (aka “geeks” or “deal killers”) think they know everything because they have mapping and statistics programs.  They have no idea how the real world works.”

“I can’t open enough stores because the paperwork takes forever.  It’s easier to get a PhD than get a deal through our approval process.”

Is this just the way it has to be?  Dealmakers vs. analysts? People who drive sales and people who prevent sales?  Entrepreneurs vs. bureaucrats? Continue reading