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 programs.
  • 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 separately.

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 revitalization projects.
  • Provide information for planning activities and for applications for grants and other development programs.

Getting Help from the Laboratory for Community and Economic Development

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 Development (217)333.8232.

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College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign


Laboratory for Community and Economic Development

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Urbana, Illinois 61801
217-244-0120

email: LCED@mail.aces.uiuc.edu