The most comprehensive source of publicly available information about customer demographics is provided by the U.S. Census Bureau. Through the www.census.gov portal, a world of data is accessible. Beware that the interface and data offerings on census.gov are constantly changing, which can at times be frustrating. This article is going to focus on how to extract information through the 2014 version of American FactFinder. This does not mean it is the only way to access the data – but is just one path through the mountain of data.
Census data is available for various geographical distinctions, including state, county, and census tract (CT). The census tract level data is usually the most helpful since it is a smaller area than a county or zip code and the available data for the CT is usually complete. To access the American FactFinder go to factfinder2.census.gov/faces/nav/jsf/pages/index.xhtml or type “American FactFinder” into your favorite search engine. Or go to the www.census.gov home page, click the Data tab and choose the Data Tools and Apps link. The American FactFinder should be the first one that comes up. Once at the FactFinder you can get data from the Economic Census, the American Community Survey, and the 2010 Census, among other options. Choose the Advanced Search option and click the “show me all” button.
With your list of census tracts of interest, just click into the Geography filter on the left hand side. There you can select geographic type and Census Tracts is an option. Choose that and follow through the next boxes, specifying state and county. You can look at data for all Census Tracts or to choose a subset. Click the “Add to Your Selection” button for the relevant tracts you want. In the upper left of the full page, you will see a “Your Selections” box where the CTs you select will be listed. When finished, be sure to close down the “Select Geographies” dialogue box. Then you will see the list of data tables available for the CT’s you have chosen.
As an aside, if you are having trouble obtaining the list of CT’s for your analysis, for example, to develop a list of CTs in a Primary Trade Area (the area where most of the sales will originate), there are several places on the web to find maps that link census tracts numbers with a designated area. You can find one set on census.gov. Go to the www.census.gov home page and type into the search block “census tract reference maps”. These are county-based reference maps labeled with the census tract numbers. Follow the instructions. First you input a state; then the counties in that state will come up, listed alphabetically. Click into the county or counties of interest. Depending on the county, one or multiple maps will show in a PDF list. If there are multiple maps, the pdf with the 000 in the title will be the index map. By examining the maps, you will be able to determine the census tract numbers.
Back at the census data tables on American FactFinder, one data table that is particularly helpful is the Households and Families (S1201). This gives the number of households in the Census Tracts. Other useful tables are Educational Attainment (S1501) and Selected Economic Characteristics (choose one from various 5 year estimates). Median Household Income is in the Economic Characteristics table. Once you click on the table, the data for your selected CT’s appears on your screen. There is also an option to download as an Excel table or PDF. Each table is large and sometimes information you might want, such as the population over 25 with a Bachelor’s degree or higher, is well down the page.
The data accessible through the Census Bureau portal is immense. The above examples are just a glimpse in how a small part of it can be accessed.
The second useful source of publicly available date is the Consumer Expenditure Survey (CE) accessed through the United States Department Labor, specifically the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Just type “Consumer Expenditure Survey” into your search engine and you should be able to get there quickly. On the left-hand side of the CE homepage are several options for finding data. The CE Tables are particularly useful for looking at specific expenditures. There are both Mid-Year and Annual Tables available. Look at the Annual Tables and scroll down to the Current Aggregate Expenditure Shares Tables. Explore the Region of Residence Tables. For example those helping to develop food cooperatives, the information for Food at home expenditures (scroll down the table until you see Food) can be useful in estimating potential store revenues. There is data for four regions – Northeast, Midwest, South, and West. Expenditure information is provided for many, many categories.
One example of how a developer doing a feasibility study for a food cooperative startup might use information from the above two sources would be in revenue projections. By finding the number of households in the Primary Trade Area (PTA) through the CT data and locating the average expenditure for food at home for your region, you can multiply the two together. This gives a gross estimate of the total grocery market in the PTA. Of course the prospective startup will be targeting only a percent of these total sales. How to further decrease the total market estimate into a more reasonable number, applicable to a food cooperative startup potential sales, is beyond the scope of this article.
By: Cathy A. Smith