Foot traffic is one of the most helpful types of data for brick-and-mortar businesses to collect. Tracking how many people enter, where they go and when they leave helps understand customer behavior, assess performance, and optimize store layouts.

Businesses today have a wide array of technologies to choose from to collect foot traffic data. However, this wasn’t always the case. Monitoring foot traffic is an old practice, far outdating digital data itself, and many of its most radical innovations are fairly recent.

Manual Counting

The oldest form of collecting foot traffic information is the same as most data collection forms: manual entry. Mechanical counting tools emerged as early as the nineteenth century, with several inventors seeking patents for simple counting devices in the mid-1800s.

These handheld tools provided a more reliable measurement than counting in your head, but they still rely on manual operation. They’ll only record another count if you press the button. Still, these devices’ simplicity has helped them remain popular today, with stores placing employees with a hand counter by the door to determine occupancy.


Foot traffic tracking transitioned to digital data with the advent of digital cameras. Using camera data to monitor people who enter, leave and move around a space removed the need for manual tracking. These records also provide context for foot traffic, not just simple occupancy figures.

Camera data can still be a helpful resource today with the help of machine vision. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, businesses discovered they could monitor social distancing with machine vision algorithms that analyze video footage. Similar systems can analyze this data to determine customer behavior, like how they interact with various displays.  

Infrared Sensors

A more streamlined approach to collecting foot traffic data is with infrared sensors. These systems use an infrared beam to register customer movements, counting each time the beam breaks from someone passing through it. More advanced versions can even determine the direction of travel, showing if someone is entering or exiting.

Infrared data can provide real-time, reliable information, and it’s often affordable to implement. They also don’t capture people’s likeness like cameras do, which helps protect customer privacy. However, it doesn’t provide context by itself, so what you can glean from it is limited compared to some more advanced options.

Thermal Sensors

A similar alternative is to use thermal sensors. Instead of using a simple infrared beam, these devices track heat signals to monitor foot traffic. They register each customer’s heat signature as they pass through an area and provide more context than when they enter and leave.

Temperature readings can show where people gather, indicating high-traffic areas that may need reorganization. Businesses can also use them to monitor for unusually high temperatures that could indicate sickness. They can then recommend health testing, inform people of possible disease exposure, or more.

Smart Beacons

Today’s most advanced foot traffic data collection method is the smart beacon. These devices use wireless signals like Bluetooth or Wi-Fi to connect to people’s smartphones. If businesses have beacons throughout an area, they can learn what products customers look at, how they moved throughout the store, and more, not just their location.

Since beacons connect to phones, they can also connect foot traffic data to people’s browsing history and shopping habits in some circumstances. Given this wealth of information and opportunity, it’s clear why experts predict beaconing to be a $25 billion industry by 2024. However, this data does bring more security and privacy risks that businesses must consider.

Foot Traffic Data Collection Has Come a Long Way

Foot traffic data can be a precious resource to retailers and other businesses. As the tools to gather this information become more complex, its potential keeps expanding. With many of these technologies only gaining mainstream appeal within the last ten years, groundbreaking solutions may have yet to emerge.

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