Surveying Downtown Businesses
Why conduct a survey of downtown businesses?
Community leaders recognize that they must create an environment where
existing downtown businesses will thrive and new enterprises will be attracted.
A successful survey will produce reliable data that can be translated into
valuable information for local community and economic developers. Usually,
downtown development projects begin with a survey of attitudes and shopping
patterns of residents to understand why downtowns are in decline. These types
of surveys provide valuable information, but often are not enough.
Local business owners and managers should be surveyed to gain a better
understanding of their unique needs for community support. The survey of
downtown businesses should:
- Help define goals for future commercial development or downtown improvement
- Evaluate existing programs, activities, resources or new opportunities.
- Assess business support for alternative development programs.
How do we conduct a survey of downtown businesses?
Once you have decided to undertake a survey of downtown businesses,
determine which issues to address. Limit the survey to include questions
related to the most important issues facing your commercial sector. After
determining which issues to address in the questionnaire, use questions provided
by the Laboratory for Community and Economic Development (LCED). This guide
provides a series of questions designed to measure merchants' attitudes and
perceptions about important issues. It is not necessary to use every question
listed, but rather to select a few key questions that will provide you with the
information you need.
How many businesses to survey?
If there are fewer than 200 businesses, then it is important to survey each
business owner or manager. If there are more than 200 businesses select a
sample of those businesses to survey. For most communities, a sample of 300 to
350 completed questionnaires is sufficient. If you want to compare responses
between different types of businesses or businesses at different locations, the
sample must include an adequate number from each subgroup. Usually, 150
completed surveys from each subgroup are enough. Determining the sample size is
not easy. If you need assistance with sampling, get in touch with LCED.
Good information requires an adequate response rate. One cannot compensate
for a low response rate by starting with a larger sample or adding to the
original sample once it becomes evident that the return rate is inadequate. A
low response rate from a large sample is as unacceptable as a low response rate
from a small sample. While there is no magic number that represents a good
response rate, usually any response rate greater than 60% is acceptable.
How do we select a sample?
The best way to sample is to list all the establishments in your community,
and then randomly draw participants from that list. For example, if you want a
sample of 400 surveys, divide the names on that list by 400 and if that equals
6, then select every 6th business on that list. Don't forget to
compensate for sampling from groups for which you wish to make comparisons.
Make sure you have enough sampled from each subgroup you wish to analyze
How do we distribute the surveys?
One successful technique is the drop-off survey, where surveyors
(volunteers) personally distribute the surveys to businesses. Respondents
complete the questionnaires on their own and then either return them by mail or
leave them for pick-up by volunteers. This method brings the business owner
face-to-face with a real person and usually yields a very good response rate.
What are the benefits of conducting a downtown business survey?
A systematic, community-wide assessment of business needs and resources is a
vital part of community and economic development. A good survey will provide
accurate, timely information and a firm foundation for creating a conscious
strategy for downtown commercial survival. This survey will: Position the
downtown development group as a dynamic organization that is taking action to
support existing business and foster future growth.
- Demonstrate the downtown development group's commitment to listen to local
business owners and managers.
- Help the downtown development group establish priorities for downtown
- Provide information for planning activities and for applications for grants
and other development programs.
Getting Help from the Laboratory for Community and Economic
Staff at the Laboratory for Community and Economic Development at the
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign can provide you with technical
support in sample selection, survey design, data tabulation and analysis. For
more information contact your local University of Illinois Cooperative Extension
Service Unit or Julie Fesenmaier at the Laboratory for Community and Economic