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EDITORIAL Lies, damn lies and statistics

Is delving into short term retail figures a fruitless pursuit?

A late Easter and some warm weather are playing havoc with the numbers. Trying to compare last year’s Q1 with this year’s has got everyone in a paddy – and meant that really the numbers we have are meaningless.

The latest figures from the British Retail Consortium(BRC) have had to be fudged to cover two year’s worth of Q1 figures to allow for where Easter fell. The numbers from Barclaycardalso doff a sunhat at the warm and late Easter weekend making things hard to compare.

But why are we comparing? The first three months of 2018 were totally different to the first three months of 2019. While many of the issues facing retailers are the same – Brexit, costs, dwindling High Street footfall, increasing online spending – their actual impact a year on is very different.

Take Brexit (for God’s sake will someone take Brexit, to paraphrase the old Mother-in-law joke), for example. In Q1 2018 we were still a year away from failing to leave by 29 March. Q1 2019, by contrast, throws a whole different perspective on ‘Brexit uncertainty’ and the impact it may have on sales.

High Street footfall similarly. A year ago, many High Street retailers were still struggling along. By Q1 2019, many had closed their doors. The High Street has become a very different place now – and action is being taken thanks to those high-profile closures.

The economy, likewise, is in a different place to where it was this time last year – for retailers, as a direct result of Brexit and the High Street changing over the past 12 months.

So back to those figures. We had a lovely warm Easter, followed by a typically lousy Bank Holiday weekend – the reverse of 2018, in fact. So naturally the results are different.

This is where endless comparisons of increasingly small windows of time becomes meaningless. Sure, a look at figures for Q1s across, say, 10 years, can paint a meaningful picture of a trend. It tells a story, but not the story. A snap shot of three months every year doesn’t, I don’t think, give us enough to go on.

The point of all this is that all these figures often only serve to fit the narrative that an industry – and its watchers – already have. Where were all the reports this week about online spending being up year-on-year in Q1? They were mentioned in passing in the mainstream media as part of the ‘retail apocalypse’ story line.

Now, I am no expert and have only really been involved in retail for 10 years, but it seems to me that there has never been a good retail climate. Of course, looking back from here, you can see some years were boom years, but at the time they weren’t dubbed as such.

This leaves two inevitable conclusions: firstly, this isn’t the end of retail as we know it, just another set of challenges to be overcome; and second, what if this is a boom year? I’m only kidding: this year is a dog, but only because the industry is one in transition. The challenges are what drives it onwards and personally I think there are some real changes coming and coming soon – the likes of Pets at Home, Primark, John Lewis and Partners and others are already starting to change what store-based retail actually means. Let the good times roll – and let’s see what the numbers on that look like. 

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