Trade Areas:
A Definition and How To Analyze Yours

Picking a location for a new business isn’t as simple as visiting a few locations and picking the one that looks the best. Usually, there’s a ton of research that goes into it — a process that can potentially take months. One of the most important factors in this research? Mapping out the business’s potential trade area.

But what is a trade area? How do you map one out? And what do you need to watch out for? Let’s find out.

What is a trade area?

A trade area is a geographical area that shows where a business can expect to get most of its business. The area is drawn with a business at its centre, radiating outwards to show how far a customer is willing to travel to buy its products or services. A trade area can usually be divided up into 3 zones:

  • The primary trade area, which will represent 50-75% of a business’s customer base.
  • The secondary trade area, where 15-20% of a business’s customers can be found.
  • The tertiary trade area, where any leftover customers usually come from.

Trade areas can be drawn before a business is established to determine where it should be opened, often using data from other locations — for a franchise — or from marketing data firms.

How is a trade area defined?

There are multiple ways to define a trade area, and the method you choose will usually depend on the resources you have on hand. 

Maps and industry standards

If you’re running a small business — or otherwise don’t have a lot of resources to work with — this might be the best option. All you need to define your trade area this way is an online mapping tool (like smappen) and a bit of research.

Say, for example, that the average primary trade area for a business in your industry is five miles. Knowing this, you can use an online mapping tool, put in an address, and draw out a five-mile trade area around the address. You can also use driving times to create trade areas instead of distances. Why? They’re not affected by geographical characteristics in the same way, so you can potentially get a more accurate map.

Depending on the tool you use, this might just give you a visual representation of the trade area or it might give you a ton of useful data about the demographics of that area, which you can use to tailor your business strategy.

Using customer data

If you’re trying to choose a location for an existing business — rather than starting from scratch — you already have all the information you need to define your trade area. Just use the customer data you already have.

With a trade area mapping tool like smappen, you can import customer data to start drawing your own trade areas. As long as you have addresses tied to those customers, you can get a sense of how long they spend driving to reach your business and use that information to map out your trade area.

>> Tutorial – Importing your own data on a map

For an existing business, this is the most cost-effective way of defining your trade area by far.

Business focus groups

Instead of drawing out a trade area manually from industry data, a business might decide to use a focus group, instead. With this method, whoever’s in charge of business strategy will gather executives, leaders, and consultants in a focus group and get them to plot out a trade area.

The main advantage of this method is that you’re relying on the experience of people within the business rather than using general data that might not apply to your situation.

With a business focus group, you’ll end up with a trade area that’s tailored to your business. This can make it an incredibly valuable part of your business strategy.

Customer focus groups

With a customer focus group, you’re using a similar method to the one above, only you’re relying on the input of potential customers rather than people within the business. This is probably the most resource-intensive method, since it involves sourcing customers for interviews and workshops — usually by relying on agencies that specialize in this sort of service.

When using this method, you’ll usually ask potential customers questions like:

  • How far are you willing to drive to buy this specific product or service?
  • Do you typically run this kind of errand on a workday or during the weekend?
  • What’s one factor that would lead you to drive a bit longer than usual for this product or service?

That kind of data can be invaluable when choosing a location for your business, but it can also inform your marketing campaigns and your business strategy as a whole.

Customer surveys

This method is less expensive than running a full focus group, and can potentially get you the same kind of data. If you’re choosing a new location for a franchise, you’ll have the advantage of already having a customer base you can survey — or prospects in an area where you’re already doing business.

But even if you don’t have a location yet, you can run a survey in the area where you’re thinking of establishing your business. There are a ton of survey providers you can work with to get this going.

Surveys can be done relatively quickly, meaning they’re a great way to get the data you need to start defining your trade area.

6 factors that can affect trade areas

Determining your trade area isn’t as simple as picking a driving time, slapping it on a map, and calling it a day. It’s also not quite as easy as just taking a focus group’s word for it. There are a few factors you have to consider as you map out your trade area:

  • Population: Denser population centers lead to larger trade areas, since people are more willing to travel farther for a product or service.
  • The competition: If you’re opening a furniture store just a few blocks away from a big box store, your trade area will be a lot smaller than if you were the only option nearby.
  • The overall business landscape: There’s a reason businesses tend to cluster together. A healthy mix of different businesses attracts more people than a plot with just your business and a laundromat — making your trade area larger.
  • Attractions: Are there any points of interest nearby? Whether it’s a large employer or a tourist destination, local attractions or points of interest can broaden your trade area.
  • Traffic patterns: Highways, wide boulevards, and public transit stops are all examples of how traffic patterns can affect your trade area. If you’re near any of these points, you’ll have an easier time drawing customers from farther.
  • Natural landmarks: Some natural landmarks, like mountains and rivers, can only be crossed at certain points, affecting traffic patterns and your overall trade area.


Using Smappen to define your business’s trade area

What’s smappen? It’s a location intelligence application that’s all about helping you use location data to make the best business decisions you can. This easy-to-use, robust tool can help you optimize your business’s logistics, choose the best location for a new operation, tailor your local marketing strategies, and more.

Because smappen gives you access to U.S. Census data, you can get the precise data you need to define your business’s trade area. And because smappen has simple area drawing tools, you can even map it yourself in a way that’s easily shared or exported for analysis and reporting.

You can start using smappen for free right now, and unlock advanced data with a paid plan.

What’ll you trade for it?

Mapping out your business’s trade area is essential for picking the perfect location, revamping your marketing efforts, and adjusting your business strategy. Whether you have the resources for a focus group or you’ll be creating the trade area on your own, you’ll see that this process can really change the game for your business.

Start using smappen now