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?
Your points are spot on in my view! The key points being what is actually being measured and where along with how accurate/reflective of reality is it. We also know that shoppers ‘show room’ and increasingly frequent the F&B offer (I believe these sales figures are excluded?). The big unknown question is the relationship between visiting a shop and the decision to purchase online from that physical store from home (delivery to home or click & collect), purchase in store or purchase from a pure play online player like Amazon. Transaction data is sparse and is not integrated as credit card, debit card and cash sales data is not available outside of each retailer. Use of these payment channels (not forgetting bitcoins!) varies massively based on geography and shop types.
The subject of understanding the interaction between people and places is something I will be investigating further with our academic partners and clients in 2015 and look forward to working with Leigh and his team at Stirling.
Thanks for your thought piece, Leigh. As you know, Ipsos Retail Performance is another organisation that measures retail footfall in the UK and elsewhere across the globe. We were the first to establish a national footfall metric (the Retail Traffic Index) back in 1998 after 4 years of beta testing, conscious that it was essential to have a measure that was robust and representative of retailing in the location in question. I have to say that establishing and maintaining a representative sample is challenging, not least because there is no census information of the population of retail stores in Scotland or the UK come to that.
That apart, it is important to understand the composition of the various footfall measures. My understanding of the Springboard metric is that it draws on data collected from entrants into shopping centres, people walking along the main shopping streets in cities and at retail parks. Clearly this is not a pure measure of shoppers as many people will be walking in those spaces for reasons other than for shopping. Our Retail Traffic Index is fundamentally different in as much as it draws on the number of people entering retail outlets alone – on the basis that if someone enters a store they do so because they have an intent to browse or buy. To us, it seems a far purer measure and a more accurate gauge of retail footfall as long as the sample of stores and their geographical location is robust. We work hard and continuously to ensure that this is the case.
For the record, we currently combine data for Scotland and Northern Ireland together because we haven’t had a robust enough sample historically to separate out the two nations. I’m pleased to say though that we are fast approaching the time when we can provide a robust Retail Traffic Index for Scotland, one that we are satisfied will reflect the footfall entering stores in Scotland. I’d be happy to engage with any retailers interested in taking this data series.
Thanks for taking the time to comment and for the comments themsleves. I would be very interested in further discussion with you about the Retail Traffic Index for Scotland as you progress your thinking and develop the product. Your points about understanding both the data that is collected and the sample on which it is based are well made.
I quite agree we seem to have lost sight of what footfall actually is – it’s a measure of movement across a virtual line. Nothing more, nothing less.
These counters cannot tell if the same person walks past two or three times, nor – as Tim rightly points out – can they separate shoppers from non-shoppers. At their very best, they might indicate a change in shopping potential but this will be of little consolation if takings remain disappointing..
There are new options emerging to combine footfall counter data with tracking via wifi, beacons or loyalty apps. These could improve the quality of data received, and fill in important gaps between otherwise sparse counting devices. This might help improve confidence in footfall figures, but there remains a fundamental gap between visitor numbers and retailers’ takings.
Footfall is often used as a definitive measure of district performance, but as this disconnect shows on both a local and national level, there is far more to take into account before success can be truly measured.
Thanks for the comment. Fully agree that the new possibilities opening up are really interesting, but again will need thought about what they show and how they could best be used.
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