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Mine Extensive Census Data for Business Insights


No doubt you've heard about Census 2000, the government's latest effort to find out who we are, where we live, how much we earn, where we work and what ethnic groups we belong to.

What you might not know is that the results of census surveys are available to anyone, including small businesses.

The results of this year's census are not yet in, but details from the 1990 census and interim government studies all the way up to this year are available at the Census Bureau's Web site at

The amount of material is staggering, and some of it may be just what you need to help you better understand your markets. If you click on the 1997 Economic Census, for example, you'll find the "Geographic Area Series" broken down by industry. I bet you didn't know that there were 6,832 arts, entertainment and recreation companies in Los Angeles, Riverside and Orange counties, with more than $8 billion in gross receipts. If you happen to sell dancing shoes or horseshoes, you'll be pleased to know there are 18 dance companies and six "horse racetrack operations."

The reports don't tell you the names and addresses of the businesses, but they do give you a feel for the market as a whole. This type of information is especially useful if you're thinking of branching out to a new geographical area or marketing to a new industry.

The Census Bureau's economic data isn't limited to businesses. There is also a substantial amount of federal, state and local government data, which could also be useful if you sell into those markets. You'll find data on federal assistance awards, including block grants, insurance programs and direct and guaranteed loans and payments for individuals. The Federal government, I learned, employed 2,706,420 people in 1998 (200,000 fewer than in 1990). About 10% of them live in California. The data get a lot more specific. You can find out how many people are employed in just about any type of job classification in both the public and private sector broken down by state and, in some cases, locally.

Looking for overseas markets? The Census Bureau provides monthly trade reports for every country on Earth. Canada and the U.S. traded $33 billion in goods and services in February, followed by Mexico, Japan, China and the Britain. We think of China as an exporting country, and there is, indeed, a trade imbalance in its favor, but it's also a market with nearly $7 billion in revenue flowing to the U.S. in January alone. That's an enormous market and it's only going to get bigger.

If you're in the financial industry, it might be worth taking a look at the banking, finance and insurance data from the Statistical Abstract of the United States, called "Uncle Sam's Reference Shelf." This treasure trove of data, updated for 1999, is available on CD-ROM for $50, but you can get most of it for free at Some of the information may be useful for your business, and other data--such as consumer price index figures--may be interesting reading. If you have complaints about rising costs, you might want to compare how costs in your business compare with others. The results may surprise you.

The Census Bureau has plenty of data on individuals, and it's not all based on the last national census, which took place 10 years ago. Much of it has been updated, in some cases as recently as this year. Thinking of investing in rental property? Stick close to home. The West has a rental vacancy rate of 6% compared with 7.9% overall and a whopping 10.2% in the South, based on data from the first quarter of 2000. If you're in the home improvement business, it might interest you to learn that Americans spent $114.1 billion on improvements and repairs of residential properties in the second quarter of 1999. And there's plenty of detail about how that money was spent.

OK, I admit I love looking at statistics. But knowing where we stand as a society isn't just a parlor game, it can be vital to your business.

You paid for the data, so you might as well use it. And if census takers knock on your door, keep in mind that the information they collect could wind up benefiting your business.


Technology reports by Lawrence J. Magid can be heard at 2:10 p.m. weekdays on the KNX (1070) Technology Hour. He can be reached at His Web site is at

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