Sunday, February 23, 2003

Economic Census gets ready



By Rhona Abrams
Gannett News Service

Make your business count! And have your business be counted. It's time for the Economic Census of the United States.

Every five years, the U.S. Census Bureau gathers comprehensive data on the businesses and economic activity of the country. It collects data on more than 1,000 industries in every ZIP code. I can't begin to tell you how important this information is - to your fellow entrepreneurs, banks and other financing sources, to policy makers and, most importantly, to you.

If you want to expand your marketing, prepare a business plan or apply for a loan, the information you can gather free from the Economic Census is invaluable. You can find exactly how many businesses there are in any given industry in any ZIP code.

The Economic Census isn't just something cooked up by government bureaucrats. It's a direct, important tool for businesses, especially small businesses.

This year, the Census Bureau has added some fascinating new questions, including gathering the first comprehensive information on online commerce sales in every industry.

While there's a fine for failing to file, that shouldn't be your major motivation for returning your Economic Census form. It's a simple thing you can do to help yourself and your fellow Americans who want to start businesses.

An example: Let's say you want to start a dry-cleaning business. From the Economic Census, you can find out exactly how many dry cleaners there are in each ZIP code in your community, how different ZIP codes compare by number of dry cleaners, how the number of dry cleaners compare to other personal service businesses, and how well they are doing. All for free. All with just a few clicks through the Census Bureau's well-organized Internet site.

Think of how much money you can save in market research costs, not to mention the costs of opening a store in the wrong location! Even if you're already in business, Economic Census data might even keep a new competitor from opening in your already-well-served ZIP code.

To help you see how to use Economic Census information, I've reposted the step-by-step guide from a column I wrote last year at www.RhondaOnline.com.

There's another reason I urge you to file your Economic Census form. If you're a regular reader of my column, you know I'm frustrated that government policy acts as if all businesses in this country were big businesses. One of the reasons is that for decades we only had good data on big companies. As a result, economic incentives and tax policies have done little to help small companies.

If you want that to change - as I do - if you want small companies to get a better hearing in Washington, then legislators need better information about the strength and numbers of small business. So get those Economic Census forms filed. If you've lost your form or need assistance, visit www.census.gov/econhelp or call the toll-free number, (800) 233-6136.

Rhonda Abrams writes the nation's most widely read small-business column and is the author of "The Successful Business Plan: Secrets & Strategies." Register to receive her free business tips newsletter at www.RhondaOnline.com.



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