Lies, Damn Lies, Statistics ….. and Media Coverage

I’ve just taken up Twitter and am still trying to work out what to do with it and what it is useful for.  I think this could be a very long journey for me.

But I’ve added the Twitter feed to this blog and the observant might have noticed something odd in my tweets/re-tweets last week:

Retail sales twitter

So on the 1st May the Scottish Government publishes its Retail Sales Index for Scotland, 1st Quarter 2013.  And the BBC reports it under the heading of a shop sales rise.  Yet at exactly the same time the Scotsman reports it in terms of retail sales lagging behind.

The BBC quote Barclays Corporate Banking as seeing the figures as ‘buoyant’ whereas the Scotsman use CBI Scotland to castigate the Scottish Government for its £95m rates surcharge on larger retailers and plans for a carrier bag tax which would add costs and complication.

Now I’m not going to feign surprise that people and organisations involved in ‘news’ have agendas; after all I lived in the US and was traumatized by the “fair and balanced” Fox News, but this juxtaposition caught my eye.

The figures, which as the statisticians point out are less reliable for Scotland due to sample size, volatility across a smaller sample and (in my view) some potential issues with estimation (turnover is allocated to Scotland on the proportion of employees based in Scotland where a retailer quotes across GB) can be summarised.


So both reports are right!  In the latest quarter Scotland did less well than GB as a whole, but on an annualised basis (last four quarters) Scotland did better.  Grounds for optimism or grounds for pessimism?

If you look at the longer run, back to 2008 Q1 for example, the series shows Scotland has underperformed GB, but not by much.  There are peaks and troughs, but overall there is little in it.  Perhaps though both are equally bad, as the value figures show how inflation has not been kept pace with and suggests that retailers are continuing to struggle, whatever ‘spin’ you put on it.  This recession has some way to play out for many businesses, though as ever within these macro-figures there will be some outstanding performances.

More worryingly perhaps is the feeling that we are just not sure what is going on. When you add to that the issues around the Scottish Retail Sales Monitor and its treatment of the admittedly very difficult issue of what constitutes an internet sale for Scotland, and the concerns expressed in some quarters over retail vacancy data and the areas and boundaries which it covers, together with the sense that we don’t really have accurate and consistent data focused on places, you do begin to question whether we are taking aspects of our economy and society seriously enough. Our data on retailing and on our towns and cities is simply not good enough.

Whether we end up independent, devolved, somewhere in between or ruled by the Farage, it might be good to actually know what it is going on across Scotland’s economy and places. Just in case we thought we might want to do something about it.

About Leigh Sparks

I am Professor of Retail Studies at the Institute for Retail Studies, University of Stirling, where I research and teach aspects of retailing and retail supply chains, alongside various colleagues. I am Chair of Scotland's Towns Partnership. I am also a Deputy Principal of the University, with responsibility for Education and Students.
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