Calculations of how atoms interact could help retail-business owners find the best places to locate their stores.

Researcher Pablo Jensen, a computational physicist at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Lyon, France, studied the locations of businesses in Lyon.

His goal was to determine which stores seemed to draw or drive away other types of stores, much as how various kinds of atoms can attract or repel each other according to their electromagnetic properties.

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To see how well one kind of business, such as furniture stores, attracted or repelled other types of stores, such as delis or hairdressers, Jensen looked at each kind of store.

He examined what other sorts of businesses were or were not found within a 300-foot radius, which he judged as a typical distance a customer accepts to walk to visit different stores.

He then plugged those numbers into formulae normally used to study atomic interactions.

The analysis revealed promising locations throughout the city for each of the 55 categories of shops Jensen studied.

Values might, for instance, prove high for a jewelry store in a particular location if there are other accessory stores nearby selling shoes or hats, but few neighboring grocery or hardware stores.

Jensen confirmed his model by looking at business data for Lyon in 2003 and 2005.

He found that bakeries, for example, that were in locations the model deemed low quality in 2003 tended to fail by 2005.

Meanwhile, new bakeries popped up preferentially at locations the model deemed high quality.

Jensen is now working with the Lyon Chamber of Commerce on developing software based on his model to advise aspiring business owners on promising locations for stores and city officials on ways to improve commercial opportunities in specific town sectors.

Further research is necessary to confirm whether or not his model works in other cities, he said in an email interview.

Jensen reports his findings in the September 2006 issue of the journal Physical Review E.

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