Facts and figures needed to understand retail trade

Analysis: Beware of anecdote, particularly when attempting to gauge what is going on in an economy. Statistics often get sniffed at, but the truth is that taking large samples is the only way of knowing with any accuracy what is going on in large, complex societies.

Yesterday, statisticians published retail sales figures. They measure how much consumers spent in the shops and how much cash Irish retailers with a physical shop took in from online operations.

The December figures demonstrate the importance of statistics. Over the Christmas period, some retailers were talking about the highest festive turnover in years.

Given the slight rise in total retail sales since the middle of the year, a further increase in December would have been an important piece of evidence to suggest that a durable recovery was under way.

Alas, those anecdotes were misleading. Total retails sales did not bounce upwards in December. Instead, they were broadly stable when adjusted for seasonal factors.


What explains this? The most likely explanation was the bumper year enjoyed by department stores, whose spokespeople took to the airwaves over the Christmas with the sound of tills ringing loudly in their ears.

By both value and volume, sales in department stores rose strongly during the year. And, even when adjusted for the seasonal surge, their turnover soared in December, exceeding even the money-no-object Christmases in 2006 and 2007.

But yesterday’s figures showed how some other sectors are still deep in a slump. Around the world people may be flocking to Irish pubs, but Irish people are deserting them in droves.

Publicans are selling about one-third fewer drinks than five years ago. But their may be a glimmer of light – the second half of 2012 saw the first uptick in sales since the middle of the last decade.

Booksellers and newspapermen, however, collectively saw only continued decline in their sales in 2012, despite the 50 Shades phenomenon last year.

By Dan O’Brien