Parking Lots Help Predict Earnings

Satellite images aren’t just useful for protecting national security, looking up online directions and checking out your roof on Google (s GOOG) Earth anymore. Now market analysts are spying on us from above. UBS Investment Research has started incorporating analysis of satellite images of the parking lots of big-box retailers into its earnings estimates, reports CNBC, forecasting an uptick in sales based on parking lot traffic where a drop was previously expected.

It turns out that rather than a 1 percent decline in sales for Walmart (s WMT) in the second quarter compared to year ago, relatively full parking lots indicate a 0.7 percent gain in sales for the quarter.

Satellite picture of a Walmart parking lot

UBS bought its satellite data and analysis¬†from a startup called Remote Sensing Metrics, which built a model for how customer flow presages quarterly earnings. Remote Sensing found that Walmart parking lot traffic was up 4 percent in June from a year ago, probably because of an aggressive “rollback” marketing campaign.

Remote Sensing also determined that earlier this year, Walmart stores were attracting growth in areas where there was more unemployment, while Target (s TGT) stores were doing the opposite. Now both retailers are seeing growth, which the firm thinks bodes well for the economy. It also found that Lowe’s (s LOW) is outpacing Home Depot (s HD) in summer shoppers.

Lanworth, another research company mentioned in the CNBC report, analyzes commodity crop production using infrared and microwave images. Last year, it detected a drop in corn production months months before the USDA, and it recently warned that 2010 Russian wheat production is far below reported levels.

Just imagine if such satellite image analysis were crowdsourced on a service like Amazon (s AMZN) Mechanical Turk. We could probably figure out just about everything that’s happening in the world at any time. Privacy lovers might want to avoid satellite detection by staying indoors and buying from where they can’t be tracked. Oh wait — that won’t work either.

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