Big Data

US Census Approach Brings Commerce Worry And Anticipation

It’s (almost) that time again: The next U.S. Census, scheduled for 2020. The decennial data collection effort often sparks some debate about the methods and accuracy of the count — and given the political and economic stakes, how could it not?

The current controversy is about the plan, announced in March, to ask people whether they are citizens. Moving beyond the partisan issues at play, the controversy highlights how important the census is to commerce and payments, and how just a single change to what’s asked on the national, constitutionally-mandated survey could spark anxieties among retailers, marketers and others.

In case you’ve missed it, the Trump administration is facing legal challenges from groups that say the question will depress participation from households fearful of revealing their immigration and citizenship status — which, in turn, will impact political representation, federal funding and other areas. Supporters of the question say it will lead to a more accurate picture of the nation’s demographics, and have assured opponents that the information will not be shared with law enforcement.

Worry Among Marketers

As the controversy makes its way through the courts, worry is increasing among some in the marketing community about what the addition of the citizenship question might mean for future retail and business efforts.

The thinking goes like this: Not only would the inclusion of the question reduce participation among the estimated 12 million undocumented people living in the United States, but it could also have similar effects with Green Card holders and naturalized citizens. That, in turn, could make it harder for marketers, retailers and others in commerce and payments to use the freshest census data to plan new operations or campaigns.

An “undercount would affect data projections used by companies in the U.S. to make decisions about investment allocations, store locations, goods and services needed to serve the right number of people in a given area, [and] the number of cellphone towers needed so that people’s phones have a connection, among many others,” Gilbert D'Avila, co-founder of the Association of National Advertisers' Alliance for Inclusive and Multicultural Marketing, recently told Forbes. “It would prevent companies from maximizing their growth and prevent consumers [from receiving] the goods and services they need in a timely and efficient manner.”

Commerce Questions

This is hardly the first time that U.S. Census data has caused controversy in the retail world. For instance, data centered around eCommerce can still produce debate about its accuracy and scope, with some organizations (media, marketing or otherwise) taking that information as gospel and others tweaking it with their own proprietary research and statistics. Economists associated with PYMNTS, for example, have documented in-depth how the Census Bureau has undercounted eCommerce sales growth.

Nor is a single census question the only reason for worry related to commerce. The Los Angeles City Council is pushing for more state funds to conduct what local officials call “outreach” to encourage more participation in the 2020 count among residents of the deeply multicultural urban area. A city resolution described the census as “essential for government agencies, private businesses and research professionals.”

Another L.A. governmental memo reads as though it could come from a variety of cities across the country: “Data collected by the Census Bureau affects government and private industry decisions, such as housing or retail [locations], where to locate job development programs or where population growth requires additional transit program support.”

Small Business Advantage

That may seem somewhat obvious, but it doesn’t mean the stakes of the count are any lower when it comes to the 2020 census — or, to be fair, any other such data collection efforts, including those in Canada.

A University of Waterloo study published earlier this year found that “small businesses could save thousands of dollars a year in consulting and research fees if they just used information that's already publicly available,” and that information freely available from government census reports “can help to put smaller businesses on an equal footing with large retailers, who have more capital to spend on gathering business intelligence.”

Data collection of a population is almost always political, and as nonpartisan as the Census Bureau says it tries to be, there is no escaping the ideological debates of the day. The upcoming census, no matter what questions it may or may not include, will have major impacts on commerce.



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