Factsheet Surveying Local Retail Customers

Why conduct a survey of local retail customers?

The changing retail structure of many communities is slowly diminishing the role of their downtown. Although residents want to maintain their traditional downtown, they also want access to a large variety of consumer goods. A survey of shopping patterns and consumer attitudes will produce reliable data that can be translated into valuable information for local community and economic initiatives. The survey of local retail customers should:

  • Assess local residents' attitudes and preferences for retail activity in the community.
  • Identify needs for retail and other services.
  • Help define goals for future commercial development or downtown improvement programs.
  • Evaluate existing programs, activities, resources or new opportunities

How do we conduct a survey of local retail customers?

Once you have decided to undertake a survey of local retail customers, determine which issues to consider in your questionnaire. The committee, sponsoring agency or community group which initiates the retail assessment study should have a broad membership to ensure that various interests are addressed. The Laboratory for Community and Economic Development (LCED) provides a series of questions created to evaluate customer attitudes and local shopping patterns. Use these questions to design your community survey. It is not necessary to use every question listed, but rather select a few that will provide the information you need.

Who should we survey?

Survey residents who live in your community, in nearby rural areas and in communities from which you wish to attract retail customers. A radius of approximately 50 miles from your community can be a realistic area from which to select your sample.

How many residents should we survey?

For many rural communities, a sample of 400 households is sufficient. If you want to compare responses between residents who live in different locations or respondents of different age group, then 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 select a sample is to first identify a list that includes all households within the radius of the area you want to survey. It is difficult to find the ideal list, one which includes every household in your study area. A list of addresses from telephone directories excludes residents without telephones, those with unlisted telephone numbers and new residents who are not yet listed in the directory. A telephone directory on a CD ROM, however, provides an easy way to download names and addresses. A list of subscribers to a utility is biased for residents who live in apartments, senior citizen homes or any unit that does not get directly charged by that utility. Often, the utility company will offer to mail out the survey with their billing statement. Select the source for your list of households that minimizes bias and allows you to easily select a random sample of names.

How do we distribute the surveys?

One successful technique is the drop-off survey, where volunteers deliver the surveys to households. Respondents complete the questionnaires on their own and then either return them by mail or leave them for pick-up by volunteers. This method usually yields a very good response rate.

What are the benefits of conducting a survey of local retail customers?

A systematic, community-wide assessment of local shopping behavior is a vital part of communityand economic development. A good survey will provide accurate, timely information and a firm foundation for creating a conscious strategy for community development projects. This type of survey will:

  • Position the community development group as a dynamic organization that is taking action to foster community and economic development.
  • Help the community development group establish priorities for commercial development projects.
  • Demonstrate the community development group's commitment to listen to local citizens.
  • 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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905 South Goodwin Avenue
Urbana, Illinois 61801
217-244-0120

email: LCED@mail.aces.uiuc.edu