From the April 1998 issue of Startups

Every 10 years the country gets caught up in a frenzy of numbers. States, cities, and organizations jockey to make sure all their constituents are noted during the deci-annual U.S. census. And politicians bluster and spout about equality and district lines.

But once all the heads are counted and the population number is determined, what can be done with all the facts, figures, and statistics the Census Bureau has laboriously collected?

Homebased business owners will find that the answer to this question is . . . quite a lot. We dove head first into the Census Bureau to find out exactly how this number-crunching behemoth can help your small business.

One of the quickest and most obvious ways to find out what's available is to visit the Census' Web site at http://www.census.gov. (Why don't you join our tour? We'll wait while you log on.) John Kavaliunas, assistant chief of marketing services and conductor of our tour of the site, starts us off on the Just For Fun page. Map Stats is the centerpiece of Just For Fun; Kavaliunas describes it as "a quick and easy way to find out the demographics and other characteristics of your area."

Considering our area happens to be California, let's click on Map Stats, which yields a map of the United States. Now click on California to behold an enlarged view of the state. Click on Southern California to call forth its counties; let's select, say, Orange.

You've got a couple of options here: You can click on Map, 1990 STF1A or STF3A Tables, USA Counties General Profile, or County Business Patterns Economic Profile. Kavaliunas' personal preference? "I would look at USA Counties General Profile," he suggests. "You get a quick profile for the area. It includes information not only from the Census but from other Census Bureau programs, such as the Bureau of Economic Analysis and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as well as data sources such as the National Center for Health Statistics."

What we got was a thumbnail sketch of Orange County, including data such as population, births, deaths and educational level. Now it's up to you to match these general statistics with your specific needs. For example, if you run a service targeting seniors, it's important to note that about 10 percent of the population are social security recipients; if you own a retail store, pay particular attention to statistics like per capita retail spending and personal income levels.

Next, let's return to the page titled Orange County, California, and click on County Business Patterns. This section features facts such as the number of employees, annual payroll and total number of establishments in a particular SIC Code. The data is divided by industry, and then further divided into business sizes. "An entrepreneur could use these statistics to see what competition is in the area," says Kavaliunas.

If you need to know specific characteristics of a population, backtrack to the Orange County page and click on STF3A Tables. Here you get a long list of data, ranging from race and family type to the time residents leave for work. Check off the information you want, hit the Submit button, and you can download the information.

What you now have is a customized collection of data to use for your marketing plan. "If you choose Place of Work, for example, you can find out what the daytime population is [in your business's area]," Kavaliunas says.

Changing The Subject

Another way you can search the site is by using Subjects A to Z, found at the Census home page. "This gives the major topics on which we collect information," says Kavaliunas. "But remember, most of the statistics are at the national level."

For example, searching under the Statistical Abstract, you'll find really good national data. This page includes births, deaths, fertility rates, consumer price index numbers, patents issued, bankruptcies filed, partnerships by industry, etc. An area that provides more localized information is the state data centers.

Also under Subjects A to Z, you can access Tiger Mapping Services under the letter T, which allows you to create a customized map of an area in which you're interested. Visiting this page requires a lot of patience, as it's a graphics-intensive application and one of the busiest sites on the home page. If you click on New Location, you'll arrive at U.S. Gazetteer, where you can explore an area by city or ZIP code.

Census Shopping Network

The final stop of our tour is at CenStore and CenStats on the home page. CenStore lists all the Census Bureau and Government Printing Office products available for purchase.

CenStat is an online service that provides access to the more popular census data files in greater detail, for subscription rates of either $40 quarterly or $125 annually. What do you get for your money? Kavaliunas says this service offers International Data in four-digit, rather than one-digit, Standard International Trade Classification codes; 1,000 data items as opposed to 100 or so in the U.S. county profile; and a census tract locator providing detailed neighborhood statistics.

In January, the Census Bureau introduced a CD-ROM, Landview III, that functions similarly to the Tiger Map Service. The full U.S. version is $549; a combination of states costs $99. These products can be purchased through the Census Bureau's Web site.

Numbers Game

Innkeeper Uses Census To Help Fine-Tune Her Marketing Efforts.

In many ways, Sharon Tabor typifies the corporate refugee. The 39-year-old North Carolina resident left a retail management job two years ago to run her own business because she was "tired of the corporate rat race."

Tabor bought a bed-and-breakfast in Asheville, North Carolina. Although she had zero experience running an inn, when she found the Acorn Cottage Bed and Breakfast, with its 1920s-style architecture and prime location, she knew it was exactly what she'd been looking for.

Currently, Tabor does most of her marketing through guide books and via the Internet. When we asked her how she thought the Census Bureau could help her business, she confessed that she had been completely unaware of the service. "If I had known it was there," she says, "I would have looked at it."

After this revelation, Tabor decided to use the Bureau to help her pinpoint the regions where she should spend her future marketing dollars. "The visitors who typically come to a bed-and-breakfast are 40 to 45 years old, have an annual income over $40,000 and are college-educated. They're mostly couples on a weekend getaway," Tabor says. "Right now, I don't know where people who fit this profile are located."

Tabor researched Omaha, Nebraska. She chose income under Subjects A to Z, hit "1990 Census Lookup" and then "STF3C-part 1," then checked the information she needed. The data table she created included age, education, occupation and median household and per capita incomes for 1989. This helped Tabor discover exactly why she doesn't have many customers in Omaha. The largest population numbers were in the 25- to 44-year-old age group, and most people were not college graduates. While there were many professional specialty occupations, the largest industry by far was administrative support occupations (i.e., clerical jobs). The median household income of $30,000 was also below that of her typical customer.

Tabor's conclusion? "These statistics are a good guide for determining what region to advertise in," she says. And that's the beauty of using the Census Bureau--you get targeted market research at the best price in the world.

Going Global

The Census' Web page is a good resource for people looking to expand internationally. From the home page, your path begins at the Current Economic Indicators, then goes to Business, International Trade, and Country by one-digit SITC (Standard International Trade Classification) commodity trade data.

There you'll find the country you're researching. Once you choose what year's data you'd like to review, you can obtain total amounts of commodities that the United States imports from and exports to the country. "This section may indicate to entrepreneurs what countries to consider as possible export destinations," says John Kavaliunas, assistant chief of marketing services for the Census Bureau.

Contact Sources

Acorn Cottage Bed and Breakfast, http://www.bbonline.com/nc/acorncottage