Manual Counters vs. Automatic People Counters

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As retailers and other businesses plan for long-term success, they often want to track their visitor traffic. These companies’ evolving needs require them to understand their traffic patterns on a deeper level. Some are exploring occupancy tracking for the first time. Others are wondering if they’ve outgrown their manual counting system. 

If your business is ready to start counting visitors for the first time or is considering an upgrade, Traf-Sys can help. We offer people counting solutions to fit many commercial environments. Let’s compare manual and automatic people counters, and help you decide which is right for your business.

The Rise of People Counters

Automatic people counters have been around for years. At Traf-Sys, we’ve been installing them for all sorts of businesses for more than a decade. They’ve long been a fantastic tool to measure daily traffic patterns and conversion rates. The technology has matured over the years, and more businesses have invested in them. Recent trends have helped the technology improve rapidly, and retailer adoption has likewise grown.

The coronavirus pandemic jump-started a massive trend in businesses adopting automatic people counters. Retailers suddenly discovered the need to count people in real time. Stay-at-home orders shifted consumer shopping behavior dramatically, and stores could no longer rely on their usual patterns. Shoppers fearing a long-term lockdown flocked to grocery stores in droves. As customers rushed to stock up on essentials, stores needed a reliable way to keep everyone safe. After all, these crowds were exactly what they needed to avoid.

First, stores solved this problem with 6-foot markers and one-way aisles. Safety regulations and social distancing guidelines soon called for capacity limits. In Maine, for example, buildings can only admit five visitors per 1,000 feet of publicly accessible space as of June 2020. In California, retailers must keep their facilities at 50% capacity as of July. Many states have set similar capacity rules. When capacity guidelines aren’t available, many stores have instituted their own occupancy limits to keep their staff and customers safe.

At first, many stores monitored occupancy using pen and paper. When it became clear that these regulations would become the new normal for the foreseeable future, many stores realized how impractical this method was. They had to have at least one employee standing at the door to tally visitors during all store hours. Even with paper in hand, it’s easy for someone to lose count. Not to mention, it’s one less employee available to keep up with the store’s rigid new sanitation needs.

Time-of-flight overhead people counters made it possible for stores to handle their occupancy counting automatically. Paired with the right software, an overhead door counter device can track capacity in real time. Convenient interfaces can tell employees and customers how many people are in the store and how many more can enter. As soon as this technology became available early on in the pandemic, it exploded onto the retail scene. 

Here at Traf-Sys, we offer our clients the SafeCount and SafeEntry occupant monitoring systems. As retailers continue to recognize capacity limits as a long-term reality, we’ve seen more and more businesses adopting this cutting-edge technology. Live capacity monitoring has undoubtedly seen an enormous uptick in attention recently. And it’s more than just a fad. This technology has both immediate and long-term benefits that will continue to serve businesses long after the COVID-19 pandemic is behind us.

How People Counting Benefits Businesses

People counters are new territory for many businesses. They’re implementing people counters for the first time to keep pace with new COVID-19 safety regulations. If you’ve just invested in one or are considering it, you’ll be glad to know they can benefit your business in multiple ways. Here are just some of the benefits of people counting systems:

1. Improves Safety

The most immediate need for many businesses is following safety regulations. If your state has capacity rules for retailers, you need a way to count who enters and exits your building. An accurate system lets you serve the most customers possible while remaining safe and compliant. 

The SafeEntry and SafeCount capacity monitoring systems have many features that make it easier to maintain safe building occupancy. Each can meet different retailer’s safety requirements and budgets. The SafeEntry system lets employees input manual data on smartphones, tablets, or computers and tally the building’s current occupancy instantly. As the next step up, the SafeCount system uses the latest overhead counting technology, the Vector 4D sensor, to track occupancy in real time.

Some of the safety features of these systems include:

  • Real-time data and alerts: The SafeEntry and SafeCount systems update in real-time. The SafeCount system can also alert you when your store is nearing or at capacity. 
  • Customizable occupancy limits: With the changing regulations and phased reopening plans, your capacity limits may change. Our occupancy tracking software lets you set and change your thresholds as needed.
  • Filtering for staff and children: Some states count children in their occupancy rules, while other states do not. The Vector 4D sensor can approximate heights and count children separately from adults. Special, anonymous lanyards allow you to include or exclude staff members within your occupancy counts.
  • Employee-facing interface: The employee-facing visuals tell employees how many people it is safe to admit and your current capacity. It will also provide a chart of your occupancy throughout the day. This simple interface takes the guesswork out of monitoring capacity. When occupancy is low, employees can focus their attention on other duties. They’ll receive alerts when your occupancy is approaching its limit so they can manage the situation.
  • Customer-facing interface: A customer-facing screen shows visitors if it’s safe to enter and how many people are inside. This lets your customers know you’re taking social distancing guidelines seriously. They can also make informed decisions about their safety when entering your store. 

2. Improves Customer Service

Live occupancy data can help stores improve their service in real time. For years, historical traffic patterns have helped store managers improve shopping experiences. Live data improves this analysis and helps stores handle unexpected rushes. When capacity is high, stores can use their alerts to focus their attention where it’s needed most. When traffic suddenly shoots up, store managers know to place more people on registers and get more shopping carts clean and ready to use.

Tracking traffic data over time provides insights stores can use to improve the customer experience. For example, stores can identify their most popular entrances and optimize their layout for each entrance’s traffic flow.

3. Provides Useful Data

Besides occupancy tracking, people counters offer data that business owners can analyze to make smarter decisions. Store marketers use foot traffic data to measure conversion rates. When you compare your daily foot traffic to the number of transactions, you can pinpoint your conversion rate. This data illuminates how in-store marketing, layouts and product selection influence sales.

Foot traffic data is also helpful for facilities managers. It helps them set maintenance schedules that coincide with how often certain areas get used. Businesses can also use visitor data to schedule employees around predicted busy times.

Manual People Counting

Many retailers have relied on manual people counting methods to gather foot traffic and conversion data in the past. As COVID-19 safety guidelines have required businesses to monitor their occupancy in real time, these manual methods have become much more challenging to manage. Retailers using manual counting methods use one of three tools:

1. Pen and Paper

Paper and pencil is the least sophisticated and least accurate way to count people. With this method, an employee stands by the door and makes tally marks as people enter the building. If you have several entrances, you need one employee at each door to tally visitors. This method is acceptable for approximating a daily visitor count. If store employees start a new tally at the start of every hour, they may be able to approximate hourly visitor counts. 

It’s not easy to use this method for real-time occupancy tracking. To monitor capacity, you need to keep track of people entering alongside those exiting. Pen and paper could never keep up with a constant flow of traffic moving in and out. If traffic is less consistent, employees could do the math while the entrance is empty. If your store has many entrances, they would then have to reconcile this math with the employees stationed at the other doorways.

In any case, this method is subject to the most human error. Even if you’re just looking for daily visitor counts, humans make mistakes. They could get distracted, accidentally count someone twice, or lose track of their count while talking to a customer. They could also forget to mark someone down after counting them in their head.

2. Tally Counters

The next step up from paper and pencil, a tally counter, is a small mechanical counting device. It looks like a small odometer or a combination lock. With the click of a button, the number wheels rotate to display a count. An electronic tally counter may display a plus and minus button, making it easier to track occupancy. 

As with pen and paper, it’s difficult to use a tally counter for detailed insights. To keep a current occupancy count, the user would have to turn back the dial whenever someone left the store or use a separate counter to track people leaving. To track hourly visitors, someone would have to write down their counts every hour. When employees are stationed at many entrances, they would have to reconcile the data often. 

Manual store counters work best to track daily visitors. Like pen and paper, this method is subject to human error. Employees get distracted, second-guess themselves and stop to assist customers.

3. The SafeEntry System

Digitizing the tally counter is the most efficient way to take a manual count. The SafeEntry occupancy monitoring software gives stores more sophisticated data than a tally counter. It works similarly, except it’s a digital people counting app compatible with your existing phones, tablets and computers. 

Employees stand at each entrance and tap separate buttons to mark people coming in and out. The software automatically calculates the combined in and out totals at each entry. This feature lets employees at every door see a synchronized occupant count and the number of people it’s safe to admit. 

This system allows stores to implement more accurate manual occupancy tracking quickly. It requires no additional hardware and gives you live data as your employees count customers. Because it connects to unlimited entrances, employees can make decisions on who to admit with complete visibility. You can set occupancy thresholds and adjust them as local guidelines and store policies change.

Automatic People Counting Systems

An automated people counter tracks visitors without staff members standing at the door. Depending on the system, an automatic counting device can achieve up to 99% accuracy. Any device easily outweighs manual counting. By not having to pay someone by the hour to track your visitors, you can save a lot in the long run. Plus, with automatic counters, you can gain more detailed and valuable insights. These sophisticated systems can connect with software that graphs traffic by the day and by the hour and compares visitor counts between locations.

Automatic people counting systems generally come in horizontal or overhead counters.

Horizontal counters count visitors by projecting an infrared beam across a doorway. They count visitors by how many times the beam breaks. Some horizontal counters can even sense whether people are coming or going. 

Overhead counters track the number and direction of the people passing below them. They use camera lenses, thermal imagers or infrared time-of-flight sensors to count people. Some overhead sensors offer real-time occupancy tracking capabilities when linked with the SafeCount software.

Automatic people counters offer many benefits to many industries, including:

  • Retail stores: To make sales, retailers need to first get people in the door. Then, they must convince visitors to make a purchase. Retail traffic counters track how many people enter the store and how that number changes over time. This can measure the effectiveness of promotions and signage. By comparing their traffic to the number of transactions, retailers can determine their conversion rate. This data indicates how effective their layout, sales staff and in-store signage are. They can also use the data to schedule staff around busy and slow times.
  • Shopping malls: Malls use people counters to aid real-estate negotiations with retailers. They can back up daily visitor counts with reliable data and show prospective tenants how many visitors use each entrance. They can also use this data to position security staff around their busiest entry points and times of the day.
  • Libraries, museums and other public facilities: Public spaces use visitor counts to support funding requests. The data lets them justify their costs based on how many visitors will benefit. Libraries can use this data to understand their circulation rate in relation to how many people visit. Traffic data also helps facilities managers optimize their supplies and staffing.
  • Casinos: Casinos need automatic people counters because they deal with huge crowds. They also don’t often issue receipts to track their visitors. They can use people counters to determine what buildings and areas of the facility see the most traffic and how their promotional efforts affect visitors.
  • Universities: Colleges need to make sure the buildings and spaces they invest in will benefit their students. They want to make sure students use them to their fullest and identify underutilized amenities to repurpose. Traffic counters let them find out how visitors use their spaces. They can pinpoint their peak traffic and compare counts between buildings and entrances.

Manual vs. Automatic People Counters

If you’re trying to decide between manual and automatic people counting systems, it’s helpful to compare the two directly. Manual and automatic people counters both offer some advantageous features. Let’s examine how the two stack up.

1. Accuracy

Manual people counting, whether by paper or a handheld tally counter, is not very accurate. Some estimates say it’s inaccurate by as much as 15%, meaning staff will count only 85% of people accurately. For such a resource-intensive process, that level of accuracy might be unacceptable.

Many factors can influence accuracy. First, it relies on individual employees. Seasoned employees may learn that no one double-checks their counts, so they don’t worry about accuracy. New employees may also make mistakes. In some cases, store managers may direct their employees to count inaccurately. A lower count makes their conversion rate look better, so some store managers have the motivation to tweak the numbers to their liking.

Meanwhile, staff members have many distractions throughout the day. A customer asking a question can break their focus, and chatting with coworkers divides their attention. During shift changes and breaks, some visitors may get missed. A worker who didn’t get enough sleep or is experiencing issues in their personal life may also lose focus. Even someone who is determined and concentrated on counting correctly can make mistakes. After all, they’re only human.

The most accurate manual counting method is the SafeEntry occupancy counting system. Since it automatically reconciles data from all entrances, there’s less chance for arithmetic errors. Still, its accuracy depends on the staff members inputting data on the app.

Manual counting can’t compare to an automatic system. Each counting device can boast accuracy between 95% and 99%. The Vector 4D time-of-flight sensor available with the SafeCount occupancy system provides an impressive 99.5% accuracy. Automatic counters are consistent. They don’t get distracted, and they don’t need adequate sleep to perform their best. They never take breaks, meaning they work continuously to give you the most accurate data.

2. Versatility

Automatic people counters come in many different configurations. They can perform well in many people-counting environments. While employees will have difficulty counting in dense crowds, an overhead sensor can handle it easily.

Thermal sensors work well in low-light conditions, common at casinos and restaurants. Mono and stereo sensors offer excellent performance in fluctuating temperatures. They’re well suited for outdoor environments and entrances that connect to the outdoors. Horizontal sensors can provide improved accuracy over manual counting for a lower cost than overhead sensors. Many automatic sensors have the option for wired and wireless configurations. They can work whether you have a power outlet nearby or not.

3. Reporting

Manual people counting through pen and paper or a mechanical tally counter is only well-suited to provide daily traffic counts. It’s harder to use these manual techniques to track hourly traffic or real-time occupancy. A tally counter application, such as the SafeEntry system, can count traffic in real time across many entrances and provide data for further analysis.

Automatic occupancy monitoring systems, like the SafeCount hardware and software, offer much deeper reporting and analysis. For example, the Vector 4D sensor can track the heights of visitors with incredible accuracy. This measurement can help you estimate how many children and adult visitors you receive. 

Outside of capacity tracking, automatic people counters have the most reporting capabilities. They can link to the VisiCount people counting software, which provides a wealth of custom reports. View graphs of your visitors throughout the day or across specific date ranges. Compare visitor counts at various locations or entrances, and drill down into the traffic data at a particular site. Weather and Special Events Reports analyze your traffic based on some of the factors that affect visitor patterns.

4. Costs

Comparing the costs of manual vs. automatic people counters can get kind of tricky. While there’s little upfront investment to use a manual counting system, you’re paying a constant price in the form of hourly wages. If you have many entrances or locations, manual counting can get very costly over time. 

Installing an automatic people counter will require an upfront expenditure. That investment will pay for itself over time. You won’t have to pay employees to count your traffic, and you get more reliable data and reporting. The improved accuracy and sophisticated insights help you make better decisions for your business. By optimizing staffing, you’re not paying for more coverage during ordinarily slow times. By understanding your conversion rates, you can make incremental improvements over time that lead to more sales. 

Should You Make the Switch to an Automatic People Counting System?

Here are a few questions to ask yourself as you decide whether to make the switch:

1. Do You Need to Meet Safety Regulations?

If you’re using people counting to manage your occupancy, consider upgrading to the SafeEntry system. This program still uses manual data entry while synchronizing data across entrances to improve accuracy.

For a more efficient way to manage occupancy, we recommend the SafeCount occupancy management system. Leveraging the automatic Vector 4D people counter gives you reliable data to reduce your staff’s counting burden. This sophisticated sensor can also provide valuable data beyond occupancy tracking for long-term success.

2. How Complicated Are Your Needs?

Typically, the more complicated your traffic counting needs, the more you stand to benefit from an upgrade. When your business sees large crowds, it’s harder for your manual people counting staff to keep up. If you have many entry points, it becomes more expensive to station employees at every doorway. In these situations, an automatic people counter will give you much higher accuracy.

3. What Can You Afford?

Depending on how you run your business, you’re probably better off with an automatic people counter. It’s a higher upfront investment with a better long-term return on that investment (ROI). However, some companies don’t have the budget for such an expenditure. Still, they can justify hiring more staff.

If you can’t make a more significant investment upfront, note that you’ll pay more over time to keep staff members at your entrance during business hours. Automatic people counters come in many price ranges, so you can still benefit from an automated system with a lower upfront cost.

4. How Sophisticated Does Your Data Need to Be?

Automated people counters offer much more reliable and insightful data. The more information you have, the more your business decisions will benefit. However, if your business doesn’t see a lot of traffic, you might not need highly sophisticated data to know when your peaks are and how many visitors you host each day. For hourly traffic patterns, invest in an automated system.

Get a Free Quote on Your People Counting System

At Traf-Sys, we offer people-counting solutions to fit many business needs. We have both horizontal and overhead people counting sensors for various budgets, entrance configurations and use cases. We can help any business gather insights for marketing, facilities management and staffing. If you need capacity monitoring, we offer both the SafeEntry and SafeCount systems.

To discuss which people counting system is right for you, feel free to contact our team. We can provide you with a free quote within one business day.