California startup predicts retail failure via satellite images

California startup predicts retail failure via satellite images
Credit: Google Earth

After five years of fighting to increase profits, J.C. Penney is shutting down 130 stores nationwide. For one California startup — and anyone who’s been inside J.C. Penney lately — this didn’t come as a surprise.

Orbital Insight, a venture-funded startup in Mountain View, uses satellite imagery to track the health of major retailers by analyzing car groupings in the parking lot. Year-over-year, J.C. Penney saw a five percent decrease in the number of cars parked outside, and down over 10 percent for Q1 so far, according to Orbital Insight.

Credit: Orbital Insight

In a fiendishly simple idea, the company uses satellite data from companies like Digital Globe, Planet, BlackSky, and others to keep tabs on the struggling brick-and-mortars. All told, the company tracks some 250,000 parking lots for 96 retail chains across the country.

Orbital doesn’t just analyze parking lots. The company uses advanced satellite imagery to observe everything from poverty (by tracking roof height and material) to crop yields.

And if you’re wondering how accurate a model this is, Oribital’s parking lot figures are almost dead on with J.C. Penney’s stock chart.

Credit: Orbital Insight

Counting cars as a measure of retail success isn’t a new idea, but satellite tracking certainly paints a clearer, and more accurate, picture.

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