Just about everyone has a cell phone these days, from senior citizens to children, but most are unaware those phones leave a trace everywhere their owners go.

Tracking those digital footprints is now possible at Augusta’s Downtown Development Authority.

Earlier this year the agency contracted with Birmingham, Ala.-based NextSite, a retail consulting firm whose specialty is analyzing cell phone data to see where people are coming from and where they are going.

The company doesn’t know who you are; they just follow the “pings” created by your cell phone or mobile device through your service provider’s GPS tracking system, when your phone moves from one cellular tower to another, when you connect to a Wi-Fi network and so on.

“All of this data is anonymous,” said Chuck Branch, NextSite’s managing partner. “I don’t know who the end user is, who controls that mobile device. We’re simply tracking consumer travel patterns and customer journeys.”

The analysis of metro Augusta’s consumer travel patterns can be used to target specific types of businesses that would do well in the city’s central business district.

“Our strategy is going to be leveraging the current vibrancy of downtown to recruit additional retailers and restaurant concepts,” Branch said. “(The data) has significantly transformed how developers and tenants and retailers view markets.”

NextSite has pre-pandemic traffic patterns as well as more current data, the latter of which shows a significant drop in visits to the central business district. Branch said the pandemic will take “a lot of national retailers out of the picture” for recruiting until the economy stabilizes.

However, NextSite can use the 2019 data to show prospective small business owners and developers what downtown Augusta looks like when it’s “normal” so they can consider it an option for their next expansion.

“We want to be able to say ‘This is how robust the Augusta downtown market was. These are the travel patterns, these are the customer journeys,’ ” Branch said.

Using GPS technology, the company can tell exactly what downtown businesses people visit. And analyzing where the mobile-device signals originate gives the company a demographic profile of who is visiting downtown.

For example, a significant number of consumers coming from high-income census tracts to visit a particular restaurant could be used to interest business operators with similar concepts in downtown Augusta.

“I’m certain that existing and prospective businesses in the area can benefit from a better understanding of how people spend their time and money downtown, but that understanding won’t be very helpful if it’s just a ’data dump,’ ” said Jack Evans, DDA chairman and vice president for communications and marketing at Augusta University. “NextSite is helping us to focus on and interpret meaningful metrics that we can use to help the business community gain practical and useful insights about downtown Augusta, and potentially to uncover opportunities that may have been overlooked or seem underdeveloped compared to other areas with similar attributes.”

NextSite already was working with the Augusta University-affiliated Medical College of Georgia Foundation to redevelop its 15th Street property – the former Kroger-anchored Central Square shopping center – when the DDA approached the analytics firm to be its retail consulting firm. The DDA’s previous retail partner was Retail Strategies, also a Birmingham-based company.

The MCG Foundation has used NextSite’s data to work on a development plan with Daniel Communities, a subsidiary of Birmingham-based Daniel Corp. which develops office, multifamily hospital, medical and retail properties. The MCG Foundation has previously stated it intends to develop the 15th Street property into a mixed-use project to serve as an attractive gateway to Augusta University’s Health Sciences Campus and the rest of the medical district.

“We’ve always been of the opinion that eventually downtown and the medical district are going to be connected,” Branch said.

NextSite can also measure traffic on days of the week to determine days and times that traffic is most robust. It can see where people are going before they go downtown and where they are going after they leave.

“So in addition to seeing that people are coming from different parts of the metro area – North Augusta, Aiken, over into Martinez, Evans and Grovetown – we can tell the authority these are the 60 locations they visited before they came downtown and these are the 60 locations they left downtown and went to,” Branch said. “It allows us to then start understanding the retailers and other service-related entities. Then it allows us to take that information and start building consumer profiles based on where they’re traveling from.”

Again, the company does not know the identity of the individuals carrying mobile devices, but it can tell the type of businesses they are interested in visiting. It can determine where out-of-town visitors are from, and what they’re doing when they stay in Augusta. Then it does a “peer analysis” in which Augusta is compared to similar-sized cities throughout the Southeast to determine businesses it is lacking.

“Without the pandemic, the downtown and medical district are robust enough to support multiple national or regional concepts,” Branch said. “More retail and restaurants, in turn, will have a greater impact on people wanting to live in downtown, which then has an impact on multifamily housing developers wanting to do projects in and around downtown.”

Downtown Augusta: Coming and Going

Birmingham, Ala.-based NextSite focused on cell phone “pings” in a six-block area of Broad Street to find out where people were coming from and going to as part of their journeys.

Most popular locations before visiting downtown:

1) Augusta Marriott at the Convention Center

2) University Hospital

3) Augusta Mall

4) Augusta Exchange shopping center

5) James Brown Arena

6) The Partridge Inn

7) Holiday Inn Express Downtown

8) Augusta University-Summerville Campus

9) Augusta Riverwalk

10) Augusta University Medical Center

11) Crowne Plaza North Augusta

12) Children’s Hospital of Georgia

13) Riverfront Pub & Sports Bar

14) Boeckh Park

15) Washington Square shopping center

Most popular locations after leaving downtown:

1) Augusta Marriott at the Convention Center

2) Augusta Exchange shopping center

3) Shoppes at North Augusta

4) Boll Weevil Cafe

5) University Hospital

6) James Brown Arena

7) Holiday Inn Express Augusta Downtown

8) Augusta Riverwalk

9) Washington Crossing shopping center

10) North Augusta Plaza shopping center

11) The Partridge Inn

12) Augusta Mall

13) Costco Wholesale

14) Washington Square shopping center

15) Washington Walk shopping center

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