As the saying goes, “You can’t manage what you can’t measure.” That’s why I found USDA’s recently released data on rural population and migration so interesting. The most recent survey indicates our rural lifestyle segment is showing a declining population. Here are a few highlights from the report.

  • The housing mortgage crisis slowed suburban development and contributed to an historic shift within metro regions, with outlying counties now growing at a slower rate than central counties.

  • Similarly, nonmetro counties adjacent to metro areas grew rapidly from exurban development for decades, with many hundreds of counties growing large enough to be reclassified as metropolitan. These types of counties declined in population for the first time as a group during 2010-13.

Geographer John Cromartie of USDA’s Economic Research Service offers this explanation, “Urban population size, metro proximity, attractive scenery, and recreation potential have historically contributed to nonmetro population growth. For the time being at least, their influence has weakened. Over the last 2 years, suburban and exurban population growth has contracted considerably — for the first time since World War II — affecting not only outlying metro counties, but nonmetro counties adjacent to metro areas as well.”

Cromartie says the trend could just be an interruption or “the end of a major demographic regime that has transformed small towns and rural areas throughout the country for decades.”

This is good “food for thought” and especially interesting when balanced against the optimism dealers expect for 2014 revenue. Nearly 60% of rural lifestyle dealers expect growth in the 2-8% or more range, according to our Dealer Business Trends & Outlook report. Perhaps the population is declining, but the customers now living the rural lifestyle — and those making the transition — are still buying equipment. Regardless, dealers need to uncover each and every customer in their territories. This online tool, USDA’s Atlas of Rural and Small Town America, provides county-level data based on demographic statistics, jobs, income, etc., and it also provides some small farm data, such as statistics on community-supported agriculture and agri-tourism. Check it out and see what it shows for your county.

Then, I encourage you to drive the countryside, seeking out rural lifestylers as they’re out working on their properties now that spring is here. In my own unofficial survey of my rural lifestyle friends, not one says they’ve been contacted directly by a dealership — mailers, yes, but no personal contact. 

I know the days are very full this time of year, but consider who on your staff could take a Saturday morning to visit the rural neighborhoods and drop off a flyer or an invitation to a sales event. It doesn’t have to be, and probably shouldn’t be, a sales call on that first contact, just an introduction to what you can offer them this spring. I bet your big-box competitors won’t be able to take that approach, so use that to your competitive advantage.

Data provides a great start in measuring and knowing who your customers are. Just make sure they know who you are, too.