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Using Mapping Software to Home In on Your Customers

April 29, 1998|LAWRENCE J. MAGID | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A lot of companies have no idea where their business is coming from. Even worse, they don't know where to turn for new business. Now there are some reasonably priced geographic information system software packages that can help.

Understanding where customers are can be critically important. If you're investigating where to open a fast-food restaurant, for example, you probably want to locate in a high-traffic area that the competition hasn't discovered yet. The proprietor of a French restaurant, however, might choose a quiet block in an upscale neighborhood. Either business could use GIS software.

Almost any type of service business, including tax preparers, dry cleaners, even lawyers, can use this type of information. It also can help nonprofit organizations focus their fund-raising activities or medical and law enforcement agencies figure out where to concentrate their resources.

GIS doesn't just help you decide where to place a facility. It also can be used to open up new markets, help your sales staff find leads, plan promotional campaigns or even determine the best way to deliver or ship your products.

Environmental Systems Research Institute publishes a number of GIS programs, starting with the $99 BusinessMap. The concept behind BusinessMap is really quite simple. It allows you to create a visual plot on a map of whatever data you load in.

Let's say, for example, you want to open a string of flower shops catering to Spanish-speaking residents of Southern California who earn more than $40,000 a year.

You could purchase a demographic database that provides you with information about ethnicity and income and a separate database that targets the location of all local flower shops. These files would come in a standard file format that can be read by BusinessMap and other GIS programs.

When you first run BusinessMap, the program displays a map of the United States and a menu that enables you to add layers such as highways, lakes, major cities and counties. Next you would use the mouse to zoom into a particular area of the country to get a detailed map. After that you might add the database of all the people in your target population, followed by the database of local florists.

The map would then redraw itself with little dots that show both groups. By looking at the map you could quickly determine where your target population lives and where the competition is located. Armed with that data, you could make intelligent decisions about where to locate your shops.

The software also can help businesses determine where customers are coming from--and where they're not--to help focus advertising campaigns. The information might help you decide whether it makes more sense to advertise in community editions of a metropolitan newspaper or to launch a telemarketing campaign.

Nonprofit organizations could use it to target areas for a door-to-door canvassing drive. Politicians can use software like this to select the best precincts to walk.

The basic $99 program doesn't provide many bells and whistles, but it does give you an idea of how this type of software can help your business. The $149 BusinessMap Pro version adds the ability to create territories to help balance leads among salespeople.

The company also publishes more sophisticated programs such as Atlas GIS ($799), which has an advanced database querying language that lets you explore sophisticated "what if" scenarios with a set of data. GIS software, in general, also can be used to help map delivery routes. Some versions of the software can plan the most efficient delivery route.

MapInfo (http://www.mapinfo.com or [800] 327-8627) publishes MapInfo Professional 4.5 ($1,295), which has an SQL query feature and offers thematic maps that use color, symbols and shading to help you extract more meaning out of your data. The software also produces a variety of charts and graphs.

If you have Microsoft Office Professional or Small Business Edition, you already have a limited mapping program. Microsoft Map, developed by MapInfo, is built into Excel and lets you plot data points on a map of the world, the United States or other countries. It's not as easy to use as ESRI's BusinessMap or anywhere near as sophisticated as MapInfo Professional, but it's adequate for some basic mapping functions.

Even the best GIS tools are useless if you don't have the right data. ESRI sells packaged data that you can pay to download from its Web site (http://www.esri.com), including the MarketPac-Express CD-ROM that contains demographic and business variables such as households by age, income and spending habits. MapInfo sells 22 "PowerPacks" with demographic and industry-specific data.

Data from these and other private sources can be expensive, sometimes in the thousands of dollars. ESRI's Web site has a "GIS Jump Station" page with links to government and university sites where you can download data that in some cases is free.

While the ESRI and MapInfo software is pretty easy to use, the whole concept of data mapping can be confusing and time-consuming. Unless you plan to use mapping software on a regular basis, you might be better off hiring a consultant who already has the software and, more important, knows how to find the data and create the types of maps you need.

Both MapInfo and ESRI's Web sites can help you find companies that can design a database, or you can find an even larger selection of consultants by using Yahoo (http://www.yahoo.com) or another Internet search engine.

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You can e-mail Lawrence J. Magid at magid@latimes.com and visit his Web site at http://www.larrysworld.com. On AOL use keyword LarryMagid.

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