Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Reporting Trade Figures

I am sorry to have to report that those upon whom we rely on much of our news and information seem to have developed a process by which they inform us of 'facts' that are nothing more than speculation.

For example, Retail Week is reporting that a dip in the 'retail sales' in the past week or so was due to pre-election jitters. It is possible that the election was a factor, but to what extent and in what way that effect was felt would need to be researched thoroughly to determine anything approaching a precise conclusion. What would be easier would be for the journalists concerned to read the work of their colleagues - for instance the 'ash cloud', the outpourings of the volcanic eruption in Iceland is stubbornly refusing to abate and in the Retail Week it is reported that a 16% fall in international trade through the airports can be directly attributable to this natural occurence.

I have absolutely no idea what percentage of the whole of the UK retail trade is made up of airport shopping, but my guess is that it is a factor and we must remember that the context of the 'dip' is only 0.2% against the previous figure. It must be remembered also that these figures being reported are about the month of April - a notoriously difficult month to make comparisons with on a year to year or a month on month basis - the Christian calendars make sure of that! The date of Easter, being a truly movable feast, ensures a marked inconsistency in results every year! In fairness to Retail Week, they do mention that Easter came early this year, but have they considered providing a measure that truly encompasses the entire Easter period (by that I mean the period in which Easter falls in every year in the Western church calendars, probably taking in all of March and April together!)

Another factor is the weather - this is the UK and what we can rely on in March to May is unreliable weather patterns. This has nothing to do with climate change, although it too may be making its mark steadily, incrementally, year on year, but at this time of year with the days getting longer and the ground being warmed for longer, but with the danger that slow moving high pressure weather systems in the North Atlantic will bring winds across the still cold northern land masses of Scandinavia and the ice fields of the Arctic; the weather is inevitably going to act in the most irritatingly changeable manner at the most inconvenient of times. This too will affect retail sales - especially if all the goods from the new Spring collections are pushed to the fore and the weather suggests that snow boots would be good.

Then there is the 'sales' - the effect upon the general High Street sales performance is inflated or deflated by the proportion of outlets with 'sales' in progress. Journalists are wont to cite exceptional sales figures in the midst of a traditional 'sales' period, so why is there a reluctance to report when the opposite may be true? Is it because they really have bought in to the nonsensical belief that if you mention key words then magically they become true - omitting in consequence the mention of: recession, depression and others that describe a perfectly ordinary state for a particular part of any economic cycle. This was not a flippant statement, we were told in the early stages of the recent recession by leading BRC members that we must not talk ourselves into that recession - as if retailing was the core economic activity on a global scale that dictated these things and that there was actually something that retailers could do to prevent the myriad problems in the global economy.

The point is that these 'factual' statements about the retail sales are probably based on limited sources - i.e. BRC members and other larger groups whose EPOS systems facilitate data analysis but excludes SME retailers whose turnover experience may well be at odds with their larger neighbours. These statements do not acknowledge the composite nature of economic determinants in a field as narrow as 'retail sales' and the underpinning evaluation of the figures appear to be based on a limited understanding of the nature of them. I suppose what I want to see is either a more realistic assessment, a health warning about the limitations of the data and synthesis or an altogether less grandstanding approach in what I have come to think of as sensationalist journalism.

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