Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Question: What are e-commerce sales?
Answer: E-commerce sales are sales of goods and services where an order is placed by the buyer or price and terms of sale are negotiated over the Internet, an extranet, Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) network, or other online system. Payment may or may not be made online.

Question: Are e-commerce sales included in current monthly retail sales estimates?
Answer: Yes. In addition, we are separately estimating e-commerce sales.

Question: How are seasonally adjusted estimates derived?
Answer: We used quarterly e-commerce sales estimates for 4th quarter 1999 through the current quarter as input to the X-12 ARIMA program to derive the adjusted estimates. Additional information on the X-12 ARIMA program may be found at www.census.gov/srd/www/x12a/.

Question: Why was the e-commerce sales estimate for the prior quarter revised?
Answer:† The e-commerce sales estimate for the prior quarter was revised to reflect additional response data.

Question: Are you estimating total retail sales differently as a result of measuring e-commerce sales?
Answer: No. The Monthly Retail Trade Survey covers all sales of establishments primarily engaged in retail activities, including traditional retailers selling via the Internet and companies selling goods exclusively on-line. The survey excludes companies conducting non-retail operations such as travel, ticketing, and financial services.

Question: Are new retail businesses selling via the Internet added to the monthly survey?
Answer: Yes. We update our sample regularly to account for new businesses, including retailers selling exclusively via the Internet. New businesses are identified when they notify the Federal Government of their intention to hire employees. The Bureau draws a sample of these new businesses and adds them to the survey each quarter.

Question: How does the monthly survey account for firms that go out of business?
Answer:† We drop firms from the monthly survey once we receive official notification that a firm has ceased operation. The survey is updated each quarter to add new businesses and delete firms no longer in business.

Question: How are gift certificates/cards treated?
Answer: Following generally accepted accounting principles, sales from gift certificates are included in the retail sales of firms at the time the gift certificate is redeemed.

Question: Do the e-commerce estimates include non-employer businesses?
Answer: Yes. Non-employer firms are not included in the sample. However, to account for e-commerce sales by non-employer firms, the estimates are statistically adjusted based on the retail sales of non-employers in the most recent annual survey.

Question: How are e-commerce sales data obtained from the firms in the monthly survey?
Answer: Firms are asked to report e-commerce sales on the same questionnaire used to collect total retail sales.

Question: Are all businesses engaged in e-commerce sales covered in the monthly survey?
Answer: No. The Monthly Retail Trade Survey includes only retail firms. It excludes non-retail operations such as travel agencies, financial services, manufacturers, and wholesalers.

Question: How do you know that the sample is representative of all retail e-commerce?
Answer: All retail firms, including those engaged in e-commerce, are included in the sample selection process.

Question: Do you have plans to release quarterly industry data?
Answer: No. More detailed information, including industry and merchandise category detail, can be obtained from the annual surveys as part of the Census Bureauís E-Stats report. These data are available at www.census.gov/estats.

Question: Do we have plans to release data monthly?
Answer: †No. The quarterly estimates appear to be meeting user needs.

Question: Are e-commerce sales estimated for trade areas other than retail?
Answer: Yes. Using its annual surveys, the Census Bureau produces estimates of e-commerce activity for manufacturing; wholesale trade; retail trade; food service and accommodations; and information, finance, transportation, business, professional and personal services. These data are available at www.census.gov/estats.

Question: Are foreign sales included in the e-commerce estimate?
Answer: The e-commerce and total sales estimates include sales covering all store and non-store retail locations in the United States operated by a firm selected in the survey. Sales made to a customer in a foreign country through a U.S. web site are included in the estimates.

Question: How are returns of merchandise treated?
Answer: Firms are instructed to report sales net of returned merchandise.

Question: How are businesses selected for the monthly survey?
Answer: Businesses are categorized by their industrial activity and size. Within each of these groups, the Census Bureau selects a random sample of firms. Each quarter, new businesses undergo a similar procedure, and additional sampling units are selected and added to the survey. This methodology ensures that the sample contains businesses of all sizes and from each retail industry.

Question: How many firms are surveyed to estimate e-commerce sales?
Answer: E-commerce sales are estimated based on the monthly activity of approximately 11,000 retail firms. All firms that receive the retail survey report form each month are asked to provide their e-commerce sales.

Question: Are sales at electronic auctions included in the e-commerce estimate?
Answer: Electronic auctions directed at individual consumers are classified as retail trade. However, commissions and fees, not sales, are included in the e-commerce estimate. This is similar to the way the Census Bureau treats sales at traditional auction houses.

Question: Are sales of adult material included in the retail e-commerce estimates?
Answer: Sales from businesses primarily selling goods of any kind are included while businesses primarily providing services such as publishing and broadcasting are excluded.

Question: Are you planning to release an advance estimate of retail e-commerce sales?
Answer: No. The sample used to provide an advance estimate of change in total monthly retail sales is not of adequate size to measure change in retail e-commerce sales.

Question: Are retailers willing and able to provide their e-commerce sales values?
Answer: Yes. The retailers in the survey are very cooperative and in most cases were able to provide the dollar volume of their e-commerce sales.


Source: Monthly Retail Surveys Branch, U.S. Census Bureau
Last Revised:  May 15, 2009