Making Sense of Business Reference
At the beginning of every online business reference workshop that I teach, I ask students to submit a stumper: a business reference question that has them shaking their heads. (Or shaking in their boots!) This is a sampling of some of those tricky questions as experienced by real librarians and researchers.
Q: I would like to know how to find a company’s market share for a certain product.
A: This is among my top 10 business stumpers. People are often looking for a company’s market share (or, relatedly, market size of Product X). One thing to know is that you’re never going to find an exact number. Whatever you can find will be an estimate and it will be based on a certain definition of the market and its players.
Ask yourself, “Would I want my competitors to know this if I were this company?” The answer is no. Plus, companies aren’t required to break out their sales by product or market. They have to report only total sales. So, if you want to know the market share of Home Depot in the lumber market, you’re going to have to dig for articles, find estimates of total market sizes, look for pointers to other players, and find anything you can that specifically mentions Home Depot and lumber. You may hit the jackpot and discover a trade journal that reports the top players in lumber and their market share, but this is not something you should count on. Also, be careful of the market info you do find: How is the source defining the lumber market? Are you getting market share as a percentage? A percentage of what (in other words, what is the total market size that they have a share of)?
For some products, markets, and companies, this kind of research gets even trickier. Some good resources to start with are the Market Share Reporter and the Business Rankings Annual publications. (These are in print and online.)
STUMPERS: Finance and Investing
Q: Patrons want to know what significance the P/E (price/earnings) ratio has when evaluating a company and how to use it when comparing companies.
A: You can use this question not only to teach yourself but also to point your patron toward useful resources about what P/E is and what other measures are used to compare companies. With this kind of question, if you’re being thrown for a loop right from the start (maybe you’re not even sure what P/E stands for), then start with a business dictionary. Investopedia has useful explanations and tools, and Campbell R. Harvey’s Hypertextual Finance Glossary provides even more technical info.
Q: My patrons often ask whether they should invest in a particular company. They come for advice I’m obviously unqualified to give; I’d like to confidently point them to the necessary resources for them to make their decisions.
A: Good question. I want to know too! My colleagues and I used to always joke that we should be rich, given all the access to business databases and other financial info we had. But much as we’d like to think, there’s no secret formula to getting rich quickly through investing—or any other way, regardless of what those late-night infomercials tell us. You have the right attitude: Just as you wouldn’t diagnose a medical condition or offer tax advice or write someone’s history paper, you don’t want to start voicing your opinion and giving business advice. You can tell patrons that you’re there to point them to the resources and get them started, and they should be happy with that. You’ll find that some patrons need a little more hand-holding, in which case, get them set up to begin some research on their own and then make sure they feel comfortable returning to you if they have questions later. That’s really all you can do. But if you do have a good tip on a great company, do tell the rest of us.
Q: I asked one librarian about questions that can be challenging, and he mentioned getting information on hedge funds, especially those that are guarded.
A: I never know what to do with hedge funds, either. Apparently, they are not required to report their information in the same way as other financial instruments are. (Although recent banking legislation like the Dodd-Frank Act have changed some of this.)
When I’m faced with more advanced financial analysis questions, I often see if there is a library guide out there that will help give me a clue or two. I did a Google search for “hedge funds library guide site:.edu” and found a Harvard Baker Library guide to hedge funds. If nothing else, this would give you a few places to turn (or to know that you don’t subscribe to some of the more high-end tools, if that’s the case).
Q: What information technologies—both hardware and software—are companies implementing in beverage production?
A: Good stumper. With this kind of question, you’ll have to start broadly—by identifying what you can of the industry overall. Within these reports, you will likely find discussion of technology. Don’t forget an article search; try a few of the business article databases, such as EBSCO’S Business Source Complete. Play around with your terminology and see what kinds of clues you find along the way. Remember that you might need to be flexible: For example, look for “soft drinks and/or beer or milk” instead of “beverages.” You’ll also likely want to try “software or hardware or technology,” and other variations of those terms, to start finding things. You may also discover that you need to break out your search into areas of beverage production—the beverage itself, packaging, distribution. And a quick online search for the beverage industry will point you to several trade journals. Check those for special technology reports, columns, or other ideas on how to adjust your search.Q: Raisins are big in California’s Central Valley, and I’ve gotten a few questions about the economics of the raisin industry, specifically in this area. I’ve had a hard time finding info on anything more specific than “grapes.”
A: A quick Google search for “raisin industry” points me to a California industry association and also a report from Cornell University on “The US and World Situation: Raisins” (PDF file) that cites the USDA as its source.
These are the kinds of clues I’d start to look for: industry associations, tracking back where data is coming from, etc. I’d try to see if any local university has a department or expert in this area too (perhaps there is a dedicated research center).
Also, if the questions come up frequently enough, you may want to consider building a guide. It will help you and your patrons learn about “the raisin situation.”
This is an excerpt from Making Sense of Business Reference: A Guide for Librarians and Research Professionals, ALA Editions, 200 p., $52, 978-0-8389-1084-9. It is available at alastore.ala.org.
CELIA ROSS is associate librarian at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, and teaches an online course in business librarianship for ALA’s Reference and User Services Association. She is past chair of the Business Reference and Services Section of RUSA.