No data = no impact

On Monday, the Atlanta-Journal Constitution reported that the state of Georgia is considering scrapping its annual sales tax holiday due to budget issues. One legislator expressed his support for the program by claiming: “‘It’s one of those things that spurs people to spend money that they may not otherwise spend. It goes directly to citizens and helps local businesses.'” Right after this quote, we learn, unfortunately, that “…Neither the state nor the Georgia Retail Association have a way to track results of the sales tax holiday.” In other words, lacking data, we could make an claim equally valid to the politician’s that all a tax holiday does is drain the state budget since consumers will simply plan their shopping around the given event.

Without data, we can have no impact. How can anyone really know whether or not a tax holiday not only works or is even worth its cost to the state budget? Certainly, everyone enjoys tax-free shopping, but the cost may outweigh the benefits if, for example, the state is not able to fund other important projects or increases taxes somewhere else to make up for the revenue gap.

These lessons apply in business as well as government. Without data to measure performance, business plans and strategies are subject to the whims of “gut instinct” or personal biases and subjectivity. One person’s success can easily be another person’s failure and power relationships may win the day instead of what actually improves profits.

How could the state of Georgia attack this problem? The first step is the collection of the retail data. This data needs to be daily so seasonal and cyclical patterns can be accounted for. The second step is to consider controlled experiments. For example, run the state holiday on different dates in different counties, skip a year, or change the dates around from year-to-year. In other words, establish a set of data than can be used as the control for comparison of performance. If the quantity of data or the number of stores present large obstacles, establish the data points for select stores that have an established record of sales in the local community. At this level, every effort should be made to track the specific items that consumers purchase as well.

I strongly suspect that if the state of Georgia applied some simple analysis to this program, the results will surprise them!