Looking for numerical data and statistics is a common task in business research. But where does one actually begin when statistics on practically anything can be found virtually anywhere? The ubiquitous nature of statistics and the number of possible sources can be misleading and certainly overwhelming. The following online resources serve as good starting points, however, depending on the nature of the statistical question. For subject-specific statistics (e.g., marketing or international), also see other sections of this essay.
While not entirely business focused, the US government collects and publishes a vast amount of statistical information. A number of university libraries have created government document research centers or guides to help users navigate this landscape. The University of Michigan’s Clark Library has a Finding Statistics guide that starts with a Best Bets for Statistics section and includes tabs for US, international, state, and local statistics, plus specific topics and tutorials. A similar resource, Government Information from UCLA’s Anderson School of Management Rosenfeld Library, is categorized by type of business need (e.g., economic conditions and indicators, finance, banking, and financial markets, or international country and foreign trade). It also features a Statistics Other than Business section.
People often think that the US Census Bureau tracks only population data, but the Business & Industry guide section of the Census.gov website is a good place to start to look for potential leads on statistical topics in business. The home page provides links to the economic censuses, economic indicators, and other types of business and trade statistics amassed by the federal government; some may find its Index A-Z section a bit easier to navigate than hunting through search results. Another Census Bureau resource is Statistics of U.S. Businesses. This annual series (at this writing, 2013 is the most current year available) provides national and state-level data on numbers of businesses and employees broken out by industry.
American FactFinder is essentially a search interface for pulling data from the US Census Bureau’s vast population, housing, economic, and geographic databases—a key tool for building one’s own maps, tables, and reports. While there is some top-level information to be found on the main site, expect to spend some time practicing to fully exploit the power of this resource. A little tenacity and lots of digging can yield powerful statistical data.
Another great place to start with many statistical questions is the Statistical Abstract of the United States. Sadly, it ceased publication with the 2012 edition, along with the County and City Data Book and the State and Metropolitan Area Data Book published by the now-defunct Statistical Compendia Branch. Luckily for researchers (although the content is no longer free), ProQuest has added the Statistical Abstract to its suite of products that also includes an expanded version, the Statistical Abstracts of the World, and its Statistical Insight Collection. ProQuest’s version of the Statistical Abstract, which goes back only to 2013, uses the same categories as the older editions and is browsable by topic; tables new to each current edition are noted, and the entire product is keyword searchable. For access to earlier years (1878–2012), the Census Bureau maintains a Statistical Abstracts Series site. When using PDF files that preserve the page images of these older abstracts, note that the index section is the best way to identify desired tables. One must also pay close attention to the original source of the data—a useful clue pointing to additional information.
In addition to publishing the biennial Occupational Outlook Handbook, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics is a useful source of business statistical data. Its Databases, Tables & Calculators by Subject offers everything from the Consumer Price Index (CPI) to unemployment rates to time-use surveys and more.
SAGE Publications launched its new SAGE Business Stats in 2015, offering state, county, ZIP code, and metro-area-level data with useful mapping and report-creation features. Content includes some historical data and covers executive pay, new and closed businesses, patents and trademarks, private investment, and retail sales, among other topics.
Data-Planet Statistical Datasets contains a wide range of variables from government sources and private organizations. Key economic indicators are easy to browse, as are subjects spanning education, food and agriculture, prices and cost of living, and stocks and commodities. One can also browse by source of the data—an especially helpful feature—with some time series going back to the late 1940s. Another resource, the Federal Reserve Economic Data (FRED) site, organized by librarians at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, points to regional, national, and international data, including current US employment and population statistics.
Finally, Statistic Brain presents diverse trending statistical topics (e.g., stats on landfill, Star Wars total franchise revenues, lottery winners) with images and easy-to-read statistical overviews. The site can also be searched by keyword or browsed by broad categories (business, media, financial, geographic, demographic, technology, etc.). Contents are verified by source and date, and charts have abstracts explaining the information. As it is a free site, users should prepare to work around ads and avoid unwanted content.