E-Commerce by the Numbers: Research Sources and Solutions

Article excerpt

A client asks you to find out the size of the Internet Services market. Your company Webmaster wants to know the average screen dimensions of computer monitors in the United States. The Marketing Department needs the latest figures on the effectiveness of Web banner advertising.

What do these research questions have in common? They all relate to e-commerce and are all quantitative in nature.

Traditional sources of quantitative industry data are not very useful when it comes to e-commerce and that can make finding answers to these types of questions difficult. Unlike other industries, e-commerce does not have its own SIC or NAICS code. Companies involved in the industry are classified under several categories, making it difficult to track overall industry activity. To bypass this problem, some researchers may try to aggregate data from individual companies involved in the industry. However, since many e-commerce companies are privately held, reliable data is difficult to find. Even among public companies, creative accounting techniques sometimes affect the validity of reported data.

However, the SIC/NAICS coding problem does not mean that quantitative e-commerce data does not exist. It just means that you need to dig a little deeper to find what you seek and be a little more careful of what you find. This article will try to show you where to start your search and to point out some caveats to keep in mind along the way.

The E-Commerce Industry: An Introduction

The e-commerce industry -- commonly referred to as the "Internet Economy" or the "New Economy" -- consists of companies deriving at least some portion of their revenues from Internet-related products and services. According to the Center for Research in Electronic Commerce (CREC) at the University of Texas, [1] Internet Economy revenue exceeded $500 billion in 1999. By the end of 2000, CREC expects revenue to reach $850 billion. CREC contends that the Internet Economy directly supports about 2.75 million jobs, more than the number supported by the insurance or communications or public utilities industries, and more than twice the number supported by the airline or legal or real estate industries. Overall, CREC maintains that the Internet Economy grows at a rate 15 times that of the U.S. economy as a whole. As an information professional, e-commerce is clearly an industry you should know about.

The first thing you will notice when you begin e-commerce research is that the industry -- like most others -- has its own lingo. [See "The E-Commerce Jargon" sidebar on page 60 for a translation of some of the most commonly used acronyms and terms.] You will also notice that for-profit firms constitute the primary source for the vast majority of quantitative data in the field. However, since no standard classification system exists for the e-commerce industry, these firms produce wildly differing economic measurements and projections. Each firm uses a different conceptual framework and a different analytical methodology for its research. The end result is a situation in which estimates among firms might vary by 75 percent or more.

Be careful to cite your sources when presenting data to your end users. Treat quantitative e-commerce figures as only guidelines, not as "facts."

Finding Quantitative E-Commerce Information

Market research firms in the e-commerce industry do not ascribe to the "information wants to be free" line of thinking. Typical reports cost anywhere from $l-3,000. So if you are on a limited budget, how do you find the information you need? There are four main approaches:

1. Look at market research firms' press releases.

2. Search for mentions of a research study in the press -- often an article will quote a study's key findings. Look in article databases or on Internet Economy publication Web sites.

3. Visit Web sites with a quantitative e-commerce focus, such as statistics aggregators. …