Late last week, the British Retail Consortium/Springboard latest footfall data was released (see story here) and seemed to present a triumph for Scotland. Scotland was one of a small handful of regions/countries with an increase of footfall. This was the fifth month in a row that an increase in footfall in Scotland had been recorded (and seven out of the last eight months).
But one thing really worries me about this story. If footfall has gone up in Scotland for so long, how come the British Retail Consortium Scottish Retail Sales Monitor (SRSM) shows no narrowing of the gap between Scotland and figures for the UK as a whole? Scotland has underperformed in this series for some years in this regard.
This latter point is for me something of a long term puzzle, but enhanced currently by these recent figures. If footfall is booming in Scotland, then why are sales stagnating at best?
My initial thoughts focus on three possibilities:
- The footfall series is measuring something, but we are not sure what, and its coverage or measurement is not representative of Scotland (whereas it is perhaps more representative elsewhere in the UK?).
- The retail sales figures are missing out in some way on Scotland’s sales. Long term readers of this blog will know of my concern over the recording of internet sales to Scottish consumers. The series authors have tried to accommodate these concerns over recent months in terms of non-food sales. But, still the gap remains.
- Footfall and sales are no longer as related as they might have been in the past (if indeed they were then), or the relationship is different in Scotland to elsewhere in the UK.
This issue was neatly encapsulated at the weekend by a Viewpoint column by Kristy Dorsey in Scotland on Sunday. She (@KristyDorsey) argued that the boom in footfall in Scotland would lead to a rise in sales in this week’s SRSM data. “If the footfall numbers put out last week by the BRC are anything to go by, then this week’s spending figures should make for pleasant reading”.
Well, the SRSM for November was published this morning, so are they “pleasant reading”? Unfortunately, not. As David Lonsdale of the Scottish Retail Consortium says “The welcome rise in Scottish footfall last month did not lead to a commensurate increase in the actual total value of retail sales in shops ” (emphasis added). So the conundrum continues.
Like for like sales in November were down 2.6% (total sales were down 1.4%) whereas in the UK as a whole they were up 0.9% and 2.2% respectively. Indeed, in non-food sales the gap to the UK as a whole widened in November compared to October.
So is there anything we can conclude or we should question?
1. Footfall figures tell us something, but maybe we don’t really know what they are saying any more. And the way they are presented, often comparing this week with last week etc. does no-one any favours. Footfall data is of interest, but needs solid contextual grounding (as does all data). We have I fear lost sight of this a little and are giving the one-off figures too much credence. But that does not explain the last five months in Scotland!
2. The changing nature of retail consumer however – online, click & collect, localisation, Black Friday etc. are disrupting our understanding of, and possibly measurement of, activity. The world has changed but our data has not. It could simply be that footfall is no longer as good a predictor of sales as it might once have been. And after all, Scotland has just gone through the Commonwealth Games, the Referendum and the Ryder Cup, so shopping may not have been at the forefront of people’s minds.
3. If towns are doing better, as the focus is more on them, then maybe we will see more footfall but no increase in retail sales. After all town centres are not just about retailing, and we are encouraging them to be more diverse. So what relationship should we expect, and is it constant across all types of towns?
4. Perhaps both series (Footfall and SRSM) have too many unknowns or flaws? They are samples and the coverage may not be representative of a country as dispersed and distinctive as Scotland. The exact details of the samples in the survey are (correctly) protected, but the contrast does mean there may be more issues than we imagine, not least in making comparisons or associations, but also perhaps in the data and the sample themselves?
5. We might also consider how disruptive London may be in the UK figures? It would be interesting to get more disaggregated data on footfall and on the retail sales monitor to better understand if London is as much a distinctive economy as it can seem to be.
But there again maybe we should simply wait for the official Scottish Government data on sales in this period to see if they show something different? The ONS retail sales data have not been following quite the same pattern as the SRSM. It would be illuminating if they do diverge – or if they don’t – in continuing to question just how footfall relates to sales in Scotland. These data will be available in the in a few months time.
Returning to the question that provides the title of this post therefore; footfall does matter, but maybe we are no longer as sure as we once were about what we are seeing and just how it matters?