The Numbers Game

Believe it or not (and I can barely believe it myself), the critical back-to-school period at the end of summer is right around the corner. While back-to-school is always big for retailers, this year’s period could be an especially important one, as 2014 has been underwhelming so far.

As I started to consider the issue, what I stumbled upon may have brought up a more interesting question: What numbers would define a strong back-to-school season? I got to thinking about the big picture in terms of retail sales, and about just how confusing — and perhaps even misleading — so many of the numbers can be.

The first problem is just that: there are so many numbers coming from so many different sources. If you’ve kept up with this column over the years, you know that the retail figures that come in after the holidays can vary dramatically depending on what entity is doing the reporting, what methodology they are using to collect and compile their data, exactly what information is being gathered and reported, and a variety of other variables. This happens throughout the year, and sometimes these variations can be dramatic: a 1% or 2% difference might not seem like a lot in the grand scheme of things, but what might look like a rounding error can easily translate into billions of dollars and widely different decisions for chain store expansion or contraction.

Think about when you hear retail numbers reported on the news. Are certain store categories excluded from those numbers? Do you know if those numbers include online sales? The reality is that some do and some do not. The U.S. Census Bureau figures do include a category for online sales, but other metrics (such as the popular and respected figures put out by ShopperTrak) do not. There are a number of metrics out there that just focus on year-over-year same store sales — comp store increases or decreases that deal exclusively with brick-and-mortar retail. At a time when the industry is changing so quickly, and when we have been talking about the growing influence of online and mobile sales for so long now, we need to be measuring the impact of these growing channels on the broader retail landscape.

Unfortunately, it’s only going to get more complicated. What is going to happen as more online vendors move into brick-and-mortar space (Piperlime is a good example)? How will we accurately measure their success without factoring in their much more substantial online performance? Today, the true health of a retailer is less about same-store sales and more about the conclusions drawn from a much more complex and nuanced picture: the sum of all of its distribution points — including Internet, mobile, catalog, and in-store.

In addition to changing the kinds of numbers we gather and becoming more sophisticated and consistent in the way we report that information, we also need to be smarter and more cautious about how we interpret the numbers. At times, the same numbers can be presented as a big positive in one news story and a disappointment in another. Both industry insiders and casual observers should think hard about the context and about who is doing the reporting and the interpreting. What are their motivations? So much impacts interpretation, including you, the reader — and your own perceptions, preconceptions and biases.

This is confusing stuff to sort through. If I have trouble, as a guy who does this for a living, how is the average journalist or financial analyst supposed to figure it out? And, now that it seems as if more retail entities are being run by real estate or financial industry experts instead of retailers, that issue becomes even more pressing.

I’d love to get your feedback on this, but, for myself, I think it’s well past time the industry starts thinking a little more carefully and critically about how to account for these variables — and about how to come up with a more accurate, consistent and sophisticated framework for reporting sales numbers. Until such time, anyone who wants an accurate apples-to-apples picture of what’s going on in the industry is going to have to be very careful to account for content, context and complexity before drawing any substantive conclusions. What sources do you follow for industry numbers? What tips would you share for making the most of the available data? Let’s keep the conversation going: Email me at, or leave a comment below.

Click here for past columns by Jeff Green.

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