Great Expectations

I was not intending to add to my previous two posts on data and reporting (footfall and store openings and closures), but then I saw the coverage (looking at you again in the first instance BBC) of last week’s Scottish Retail Sales Monitor figures for September.  The headline that caught my eye was:

‘No recovery in sight’ for Scotland’s high streets.

Photot taken 23rd October 2020

To be fair the main page now reads ‘Covid in Scotland: No recovery in sight for retailers’ so the phrase (in that context) that offended me so much, ‘high streets’, may have been due to a rogue web/sub editor. 

The release for SRSM that I see has no data specifically on ‘high streets’ but is instead a sector level report (and as I have written before is always intersting and valuable).  But why this release contains a quote from KPMG saying ‘a slightly less bleak picture for Scotland’s High Streets’ is a mystery, but might be an explanation for the headline above and absolve the BBC a little. If there is data that is not published on high streets then it might be good to release it for many reasons.

However as I read the details in the SRSM I got a little more confused by the other phrase i.e. ‘No recovery in sight’. 

The SRSM reports on 5 elements at a Scotland level and the front page commentary compares the current month to the average of the last 3 months and the last 12 months.

The table below summarises that data and that page.

CategorySeptemberLast 3 monthsLast 12 months
Scotland LFL-6.3%-7.5%-8.9%
Scotland Total-6.0%-7.2%-9.9%
Scotland Food Total+3.7%+3.0%+3.4%
Scotland Non Food Total-14.2%-15.7%-20.8%
Scotland Non Food Online Adjusted-2.2%-3.0%-12.2%
SRSM: September 2020 (Published October 2020)

What I find interesting is that the September figure is in every case better than the 3 month and the 12 month averages.  I don’t see how the phrase ‘no recovery in sight’ can be justified.  ‘No return to growth’ is plausible (though food is in growth), ‘still fragile’ is accurate (both quotes in the release by SRC) and “not as good as we hoped for” or even “slightly less bleak” might be true, but September was an improvement on the previous 3 and 12 months.

The BBC reporting – if you read the headline – is that there is ‘no recovery’ and ‘high streets’ are where the problem is.  This narrative is what gets remembered and eventually hard-wired.  It is misleading on both counts.

Scottish retailing is in a fragile state as the SRSM shows.  There is no denying it has been impacted by COVID and I am not taking issue with that thrust of the SRSM. According to the SRSM it is also not doing as well at the moment as the UK as a whole, but that may be a different question to consider again.  Retailing faces many challenges as a sector, especially in non-food. Though it is interesting that the Office for National Statistics latest release seems to run rather counter to the SRSM.

My question though is what are our expectations here?  Implicit in the reporting and the SRSM release is a sense that we should have returned to ‘normal’ or ‘previous’ (pre-pandemic? pre-internet?) by now.  Why?  We remain in a pandemic; there are restrictions on movement; many remain working from home; much purchasing has been postponed or cancelled as no longer needed; consumers are nervous about the physical activity of shopping and their own economic futures and in some cases are reassessing their behaviours and needs.  All this is understandable. So, is 6.0% below last September (when none of those factors really were in play) an unreasonable expectation or outcome therefore (actually it is 4.4% if inflation adjusted as the SRSM notes)?

Retailing is a sector under stress (but was so prior to the pandemic) and there are real and understandable worries at a sector and a company/store level.  The more we can support retailers, especially around the coming critical months (if we go into “fire-breaks or lockdowns as in Wales, how consumers are going to react to Christmas and when the COVID rates holiday ends in March) the better. The “no recovery” and “it’s all a disaster narrative” may be themselves driving adverse outcomes. This is a sector undergoing structural alteration and consumers are re-evaluating and altering their behaviours. Retailing can recognise and react/lead this and be successful.

I am left wondering at whether September’s performance has rather exceeded my expectations therefore, rather than there being no recovery in sight? I think the data supports that view.

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 and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh
This entry was posted in BRC, Consumer Change, Consumers, Data, Food Retailing, Non-food retailing, Retail Change, Retail Sales, Retailers, Scotland's Town and High Streets, Scottish Retail Consortium, Scottish Retail Sales, Towns, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Great Expectations

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