Now that the U.S. Census Bureau has finished the huge job of counting the population, it's getting ready to tackle the tricky business of measuring e-commerce.
For the first time, the 2002 economic census will ask business owners how they use information technology to operate more efficiently. The government wants to find out if businesses, for example, handle supply chain management digitally. Or if customers can check the status of orders online. Or if stores electronically message a warehouse to replenish goods on stores' shelves.
With the information, the government can track exactly how companies are doing business.
"Lots of folks are providing statistics and information about e-commerce, but there is as much conjecture as there is fact," said Bob Marske, special assistant on economic planning staff at the U.S. Census Bureau. The business census will attempt to eliminate some of the guesswork.
The bureau will begin sending out 5.5 million forms in December for the economic census, which is taken every five years, but the results won't be available until 2004.
Generally, the economic census tracks the number of employees, payroll, revenue and expenses. The data are grouped by industry, but also are available geographically.
The results are used by businesses to gauge competition and market share, locate distributors and design sales territories. Governments use the data to make policy, attract new businesses and assist existing companies.
Questions about e-commerce and supply chain management are among the new issues the government's headcounters will delve into.
Also for the first time, the economic census will gather information about leased employees.
Marske said that more companies are turning to leased employees, those workers obtained through an outside supplier, as an alternative to a salaried work force.
"This could have an impact on how productivity is measured," Marske said. "So in order to come up with the most accurate measures of employment, we need to know who actually is working in the various industries."
The bureau's new survey questions on e-commerce will be helpful, say private research companies that track the growth of online business.
Although analysts say that the statistics may provide a good benchmark, the survey will not standardize the way that e-commerce is measured.
"No two companies are sizing the exact same thing," said Jeremy Sharrard, an analyst for Forrester Research Inc., a Massachusetts company that analyzes the impact of technology on businesses and society.
Plus, "I define things differently than other analysts," said Michael Erbschloe, vice president of research of Computer Economics, a California technology research company.
But analysts say it will help executives to start thinking about how to report the way they use technology and to get in the habit of reporting it.
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.shns.com.)