March 7, 2021

Christmas retail sales dip …. or do they?

Dr Peter Mowforth

The Daily Mail headlines “NEXT sees Christmas sales plummet by 7 per cent blaming its poor performance on Brexit” while The Financial Times provides an indepth article on “Christmas sales prove no gift for UK high street”. DigitalLook ran a piece titled “John Lewis suffers Christmas blues after sales hike falls flat”while ThisIsMoney adds to the clamour saying “New fears for Marks and Spencer and Debenhams Christmas profits after Next slump”. While the Sun proclaims “Devastated staff at high street chain Ness could be left jobless after the company plunged into administration two days before Christmas”. Some other stories that combine reults for both the high-street operations combined with the online sales suggest possible improvement. The difficulty remains in trying to find out which channels are growing and which are not.Before following the traditional press and jumping to the conclusion that high-street retail has suffered this Christmas, it’s important to understand how these stories are being generated and how the statistics are gathered. The bodies with the most interest in the health of the high streets are the local councils who gain a significant part of their income from these local retail businesses. The physical high street also has representative bodies such as Chambers of Commerce, The Federation of Small Business and the British Retail Consortium. These bodies regularly promote and gather statistics about their members and are invariably the ones behind many of the headline numbers.However, there is growing evidence that these traditional mechanisms for measuring retail trade don’t tell the whole story.If I look at the presents I got for Christmas given to me from family members, they included:

  • A fancy antique brass fender for the fireplace purchased via eBay.
  • A high-tech torch that came direct from China.
  • A radio-controlled flying fish from a brand-owner's website.
  • A Ridge Wallet bought online from the US.
  • A rare whisky
  • A Vladimir Putin calendar dispatched from Rostov on Don.
  • A new pair of wellies and a replacement rowing cap (previous one lost in the Clyde) from Amazon.

What they all have in common is that every item had been purchased from pure play ecommerce businesses. Not one came from a business with a UK high-street presence - not one had involved a trip into town. Most came from businesses whose names you would not recognise. Not one was a member of any retail organisation that provides the statistics used to feed the column inches of our high-street newsagents newspapers.Until we get a 21st century mechanism in place to measure the performance of these pure play ecommerce businesses, we’re all going to be misled into believing that, as Private James Frazer from Dad’s Army would say …, “we’re doomed”.

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