Recent Report Provides a New View of Food Sector Sales and Employee Counts in Proprietary Data

Graphic illustration showing workers in various food-related jobs

The National Establishment Time Series (NETS) is a proprietary time-series database containing the geographic locations, employee headcounts, and total sales for each establishment across all sectors, including grocery stores and food service outlets. USDA, Economic Research Service (ERS) researchers recently compared NETS data on the food retail landscape with data provided by the U.S. Census Bureau’s County Business Patterns (CBP) and the ERS’s Food Expenditure Series (FES) to better understand the data quality of the food sector information in NETS. The CBP includes county-level numbers on establishments and employment, and the FES provides food sales data at the national level. These data comparisons help confirm trends and dynamics of the food sector across data sources, while enabling detailed analysis at a more local level.

In a recent ERS report, the researchers compared NETS and CBP data on State-level employment in the food-at-home (FAH) and the food-away-from-home (FAFH) sectors. FAH includes supermarkets and grocery stores, convenience stores, warehouse clubs and supercenters, mass merchandisers, and specialty markets; FAFH includes restaurants, drink and beverage establishments, food service contractors, and other eating-out places. Results showed that between 1998 and 2016, the two datasets were, on average, only 4 percent different for the FAH sector and 2 percent different for the FAFH sector.

While the CBP has employment information, it does not provide sales information. To understand the sales information for the food environment in NETS, researchers compared NETS with the FES. They found larger differences between the annual sales reported in NETS and those reported in FES. Consequently, ERS researchers developed a new method for calculating food-specific sales information for food-retail establishments in NETS. The newly calculated food-sales information in NETS follows patterns and trends similar to those found in the FES (see chart below). The percent difference between the FES and NETS for food-at-home retailers was less than 10 percent between 1998 and 2019. For food away from home, the percent difference was similar to the food-at-home sector. Although FES provides the most comprehensive measure of the value of food sales in the United States for different types of food retailers each year, it is limited to the national level. By providing both employee and the newly calculated food sales information on an annual basis, researchers can use the NETS Database to study the changing food sector and the food environment’s dynamics at various geographic levels, such as within States, over time.