HeadCount Retail Insights Blog

Retail Shoppers or Customers — Why the Semantics Matter

There seems to be a tremendous amount of confusion between retail Shoppers or Customers...or, stated differently Traffic versus Transactions. Not understanding the simple concept of 'traffic' cripples your ability to drive retail sales or even understand them.   


'Traffic' measures the total number of prospects visiting a store, including buyers as well as non-buyers. Whenever we ask retailers about their traffic – was it up or down? – they will always have an answer. The problem is that more often than not, they mean 'transaction count' not 'prospect (traffic) count'. The difference is not merely semantics...it is the night and day difference between being able to improve sales or not or even understand your business.

Transaction count is not the same as traffic count. The following chart shows a sample of stores from a housewares retailer that illustrates how the difference between the two can be dramatic. 

Housewares Retailer - 13-Store Example:

Housewares Retail Traffic compared to Transaction Counts
Important difference between Transactions and Traffic

Look across the 13 stores. Average daily transaction counts were 310, and average daily traffic counts were 650. Traffic counts were a little more than twice the transaction counts. 

Remember, the difference between traffic count and transaction count represents potential buyers that entered the store but didn’t buy. A traffic count will include people who are not true prospects (e.g., family members shopping together in a group), but many of the individuals really are potential buyers, and collectively they represent the lost sales opportunity.

Stores Vary Dramatically 

Not only is there a big difference between transaction counts and traffic counts generally, but these differences vary by store.

  • Seattle store (largest store): average daily traffic was 765; transaction counts were 299 — a 156% difference. 
  • Reno: smallest variance between traffic counts and transaction counts, but significant at 80%. 
  • Compare San Diego and Las Vegas: If you used transaction counts as your guide, you would erroneously conclude that these two stores were substantially similar. But, San Diego store was getting 30% more prospect traffic than Las Vegas. 

Conclusion: If you’re scheduling staff based on transaction counts, you’ll be way off the mark. If you apply some general 'load' factor to transaction counts to estimate store traffic, you’ll be wrong because the stores are different. 

Our team has had many discussions with retailers on this point. They argue that a transaction count represents the number of actual 'buyers' the store had and, therefore, it’s a legitimate and meaningful 'customer count'. That is true. But it all falls apart when they use that as a proxy for 'traffic'. 

Transactions are NOT a reliable proxy for traffic 

The fundamental flaw in this calculation is that it accounts only for buyers. What about the people who came into the store, wandered around, didn’t get served, and left? Aren’t you even mildly interested in how many potential sales were lost?

Earnings Calls

Listen to some quarterly earnings calls. Very interesting!  Retailer after retailer are asked by Wall Street analysts whether their comp-sales performance was driven by average ticket or traffic. Very often they  respond by saying "traffic was down". The interesting part is that often those retailers are not actually counting traffic. 

Without the benefit of traffic and conversion data to put results in context, retailers are left with having to make do with what they do have: transaction data. You may say that transactions are a proxy for traffic, but that thinking will really lead you astray. 

Example: Excerpt from a Q10 filing from the Large Specialty Pet Supply/Services Retailer

Retailer: "Comparable store transactions, which we use as a proxy for traffic, represented 3.6% of the comparable store sales growth…” 

Interviewer: “Did sales increase because there were actually more customers visiting the stores, or was it that more of the existing visitors made a purchase?” 

Consider this: Transactions are a function of traffic multiplied by customer conversion rate. It may very well be that 3.6% more people visited the stores and this increase generated the increase in sales. But how would you feel if you knew that traffic was flat? or down? 

Why does any of this matter? 

Without traffic and customer conversion data, there’s no way to know for certain what drove the comp-sales growth. Relying on transactions as a proxy for traffic can lead you to serious misconceptions about your business.

Example: Specialty Cosmetics Retailer

In this example, management was very interested in the comparative performance of two stores in particular and wanted to understand why there was such a difference between them.  Our team analyzed the data … to surprising and important results!

Cosmetics Retailer Transaction Count Surprise
The Facts: 
  • Vancouver store had 38% more transactions, but its average sale values were 17% lower than Toronto.
  • Our client assumed Vancouver store had 38% higher traffic than the Toronto store because transaction count was up by that amount. 
  • Management had concluded that the Vancouver store needed more staff to deal with the extra traffic and that the Toronto store needed more traffic. 
Before they took any action, the HeadCount team analyzed traffic and customer conversion data for the stores and here’s what we found:
  • Store traffic at the Vancouver store was actually 10% lower than the Toronto store.
  • Vancouver's customer conversion rate was 53% higher.
  • Despite having a 17% lower average ticket, the Vancouver store generated 15% higher sales. 
  • The Toronto store had a low customer conversion rate. Therefore, investing in advertising to drive more traffic into the store (our client's original plan) would have exacerbated the problem.
  • What they needed to do is focus on staffing levels and selling skills in Toronto, not drive more opportunity. 
Impact of Conversion Rate to Drive Sales in Vancouver Store


The example above was a game changing insight!

Imagine if these were your stores. If you had relied upon transactions and sales data to guide your decisions, your would have staffed up at the Vancouver store for what you believed was higher traffic. And, you would have invested in advertising to try to drive more traffic into Toronto store.

Both of those decisions would have been wrong. 

The Vancouver store was already doing a great job at converting the traffic  they were getting; increasing staff expense wouldn't have been the answer. However, it made a lot of sense to brush up on cross-selling and up-selling to get the average sale values up.

It all seems so obvious when you have the right data! 

"If you are relying on transactions instead of traffic you are managing your stores blind. You really have no idea how much sales opportunity you are losing every hour of every day." Mark Ryski

To improve your sales, you need to understand what lever to pull. Traffic and customer conversion help you do that.


Excerpted from 'Conversion: The Last Great Retail Metric', written by Mark Ryski, Founder & CEO of HeadCount
What are your thoughts?