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Big data for smaller operators

Big data for smaller operators

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Giant corporations across many industries think that the ability to aggregate and analyze large data sets now holds the key to future innovation, competitiveness and productivity. But what about independent restaurants and small chains? They’ve been left out of the loop—until now, when efforts by the U.S. Census Bureau and financial software provider Intuit are making it possible for even single-unit operators to get in on the big data action. If you want to know how much U.S. consumers are likely to spend on restaurant meals in the near future, or how much they’ve spent in restaurants during the very recent past, help is now at hand.

Let’s start with what the U.S. Census Bureau is doing. It compiles voluminous statistics covering 13 sectors of the U.S. economy and distills them into monthly predictive reports. The Bureau is now reaching out to business owners via a series of webinars that will demonstrate how its information can be used by individual business owners.

As luck would have it, the first webinar covers “Advance Monthly Sales for Retail and Food Services.” It’s scheduled to take place on Tuesday, Aug. 20 at 1 p.m. EDT. Sign up for the webinar here:

What will you learn if you attend? “Each of the 13 economic indicators in this webinar series will provide an in-depth description of how critical economic indicator data are collected and how you can access and use these statistics. Learn how these timely, reliable and comprehensive economic statistics can enhance your business knowledge,” the Bureau says.

Not up for the webinar? You might change your mind after taking a look at one of the “Advance Monthly Sales for Retail and Food Services” reports. The next one comes out on Aug. 15. The information is valuable, but perhaps best grasped within the context you’d learn during the webinar.

You can check the predictive power of this monthly report by comparing its forecast numbers to those of the big data-level spending reports that come out after the fact. If you do, be sure to take a look at the new Intuit Consumer Spending Index. It taps a much-different data set that’s not readily available to other data-gathering organizations.

If you or your business uses Quicken, QuickBooks, TurboTax or software, you’re already an Intuit customer. Data for the Intuit Consumer Spending Index comes from users of Intuit’s popular personal finance software site. Index results are broken down by 20 different spending categories, “restaurants” being one of them.

Why did Intuit create this index?

“By looking at all the various transactions made in more than 20 specific categories, the index shows the real-world impact of economic shifts. Analyzing spending patterns by age, state, income and gender also shows the relationship between demographic factors and individuals’ spending habits. As a result, the index helps answer questions that have historically taken years to determine.”

Good idea. So how much data are we talking about here? A lot.

“The data used for the index covers approximately 2 million users, comprising a sizable fraction of the total American population. Although the data represents a diverse range of ages, incomes, and geographic locations, this is a subset of the nearly 13 million Mint users,” the company says.

These 2 million users “have chosen to provide opt-in demographic data when signing up for a account. Unlike survey data, the data is electronically generated from bank and credit card accounts records in near real-time.”

The first release of the Intuit Consumer Spending Index, which took place in late spring, had positive news for restaurants. Spending at restaurants in the first quarter of 2013 was up 11 percent since the first quarter of 2009. “Eating out is the first area users cut when they want to save money,” Intuit says. “The recovery sends them back out, especially those under 36, who are spending 40 percent more now.”

That’s the kind of actionable information restaurant operators want to know. Let’s hope that the second release of this new Intuit index, scheduled for mid-August, confirms this upward trend.

You still have to trust your instincts when you devise new strategies for your business. But one or both of these two sources of big data might be able to give you insights you couldn’t get any other way.

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