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The GIS way of building business

Cadillac Fairview Corp. used fancy maps when it wooed upscale U.S. kitchen retailer Williams-Sonoma Inc. and Swedish cheap-chic clothing chain H&M to open outlets in its Eaton Centre mall in Toronto.

They were not conventional road maps though.

Rather, they were computerized maps inlaid with data indicating where potential customers live, how much money they make, and what kind of lifestyles they lead. And this marketing weapon stems from postal codes of shoppers polled at the flagship mall.

“It’s a very powerful visual tool,” says Susan Williams, director of national research and marketing for the Toronto-based mall and office developer. “Once we have their postal code, we use the other behavioural information to understand our shopper.”

More companies are turning to GIS mapping software to make business decisions and get a competitive edge.

Cadillac Fairview uses the technology to target shoppers for direct mail campaigns, and as part of its strategy to convince more foreign retailers to come to Canada.

GIS has traditionally been used by governments for operational maps to manage their natural resources, and by regulated businesses like utilities companies to figure where to place infrastructure like power and phone lines.

But the digital maps that now incorporate demographic analysis, including census figures and company data, are now being used by a wider range of businesses, from insurance companies and banks to restaurants and retailers.

One analyst, David Sonnen, expects the use of GIS technology by businesses to grow by 20 to 30 per cent a year for the next three years as a result of a rebounding North American economy — compared with about 5 per cent for the overall information technology industry.

GIS firms like Troy, N.Y.-based MapInfo Corp. have focused mostly on corporate applications while other major players like Redlands, Calif.-based Environmental Systems Research Institute and Intergraph Corp. of Huntsville, Ala., have joined the corporate game after targeting mainly government business.

Insurers like Manulife Financial Corp. and Allstate Corp. use MapInfo’s technology to assess how far their clients are from historical flood plains and earthquake areas, and sometimes from terrorist targets like major landmarks or airports. They then market their policies to the lower-risk customers, Mr. Cattini said.

Most of Canada’s big five banks also rely on the maps to open branches and help target potential customers, said Kevin Antram, general manager of MapInfo Canada. These tools are about making decisions that affect the bottom line, Mr. Antram said.