The retail news cycle last Sunday was dominated by the Local Data Company/PwC report on openings and closures in the first half (well, to August) of this year. The headlines were positively apocalyptic, led by the BBC with its unambiguous statement:
“Coronavirus drives shop closures to new record” and the opening sentence “A record number of shops closed on UK high streets during the first half of this year”.
So that’s that then. The high street is dead and we can all stay away. But there’s just a few problems with this:
1. The report is NOT just about shops – it covers services and leisure as well
2. The report does NOT cover independent businesses, including independent retailers
3. It actually is NOT the UK, as Northern Ireland is not included
4. It does NOT cover all retail locations, but is not only about high streets
5. But the report DOES SAY that openings were at a three year high
Now, there are elements of reality in the broad statements beyond the headlines. Undoubtedly we are living through a period of change, But, the doom and gloom narrative for retail on the high street is just too convenient a hook for a report that is not solely on that topic. Why do we have to put up with this?
Interestingly, the press release from PwC and the more detailed document on their website paint a more nuanced picture. They talk (in the main) about store openings and closures and point to the sustained level of the former. They couch their story in a discussion of systemic change, too much space over decades, accelerated impacts, local high street growth, sectoral variations and the issues around COVID19 and ongoing regulations. This is not sugar-coated and they point to likely future impacts, but it is realistic and far more reflective than the media headlines (and it was not just the BBC, see Guardian (and note the headline states clearly “shops”) and Independent for example). But, even their commentary talks about shops and retailers when the survey is not focused on these and when the coverage is partial.
There are also some more odd things in the press release and commentary. Two examples will suffice:
(a) That the high street recovery will not be based on retail alone – odd as the data here are more than retail yet the release focuses on shops
(b) That the 10pm curfew will have a devastating impact on the sector – odd as I don’t think that much of a proportion of shops are open after 10pm (see my previous post for more mis-reporting on this).
These are in my view sloppiness of thought and argument derived from the lack of a careful focus on what is actually in the survey (and what is not).
A final niggle, this time about the spatial coverage: the report says it covers “all high streets, shopping centres and retail parks in Great Britain”. The notes for editors in the press release says it is based on 1,925 “locations” (up from the 500 locations which caused so much annoyance to me a couple of years ago and the mis-reporting of “Scottish” data). Yet, the Ordnance Survey (who have been steadily producing some really interesting base data on high streets) state that there are almost 7,000 high streets in Great Britain (this must be right as it was a question of Richard Osman’s House of Games a couple of weeks ago). So, I wonder what is going on in these “other” 5,000 more local high streets? And I wonder if the pattern is the same – or not?
As I stated at the outset, there is no doubt that we are living through challenging and challenged times and many of the broad changes are commonly accepted and understood. But, as the Ordnance Survey notes, in such times we need accuracy and clarity in data (and in my view reporting) and I don’t think we are well served currently on either footfall to store openings and closures. The conflation of high street for retail when many trends are found away from high streets as well is another misleading shorthand. Less hyperbole and more thought about what the data actually is (and is not), and what it shows (or not), and less trying to fit to a story, might help us better understand our businesses and towns, and then do the right thing by them.
I find it remarkable that openings have held up over the last five years and especially in this year. Why is that not an equal part of the story? And that some towns and high streets have done really well during this year. But then that doesn’t fit the pre-planned story does it?
UPDATE 21.10.2020 0815
After scheduling the post above, last night I came across @Soult’s tweet on data issues in Durham, as shown below. Stuff happens I suppose, but some of the changes and alterations seem curious (where did Corby go? Did Durham and Newcastle get confused?). But my eye was taken by the heading of the graphs (by the BBC I presume and not the LDC/PwC) which captions the totals as shops. Are they actually shops? Or are they the retail, leisure, service, hospitality etc operations mentioned in the post above? You might argue it is does not matter if you are reporting on places, but I think it does matter both for places and for retail.