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Covering retailing: What the economic data means

There are several sets of data released each month that attempt to provide a window into how much merchandise retailers are selling and how much people are spending — two sides of the same coin that can result in very different figures. These are often taken as indicators of the country’s economic health, but some statistics are more reliable and comprehensive than others.

Walmart shelves

Photo by Flickr user Ratterrell

Even if you do not report on this data when it is released, you’ll find it helpful to review it periodically to find new trends in consumer spending or to provide support for things that you see happening on the ground. Interested in how auto sales changed after the government’s Cash for Clunkers program? Writing a story about how high food and gasoline prices are affecting people in your community? Want to show how the ailing home furnishings market has put a local chain out of business? This data will be valuable to crafting a more solid story.

Same-store or “comparable” store sales:

  • Released on the first Thursday of every month
  • About 30 major chain retailers report these numbers, most of them stores you would find in a mall (Think Gap, Macy’s, Abercrombie, Kohl’s), plus warehouse clubs (BJ’s and Costco) and a few big-box stores like Target. Each retailer puts out its own press release out in the morning with results and commentary, making it a real pain to compile them all!
  • Same-store or comparable store sales measure the amount of sales that month only at stores that have been open for at least a year. That figure is then compared to sales during the same month the previous year and converted into percent change.
    • Ex: Retailer XYZ recorded $100 in sales in July 2010 and $110 in sales in July 2011. That means same-store sales rose 10 percent in July from a year ago.
    • Retailers will usually include their net sales results in these press releases. Do not be fooled! Net sales results are usually higher than same-store sales because they include sales from stores that have opened in the past year. New stores typically get a boost in sales because they’re, well, new and shoppers want to see what all the fuss is about. Net sales are important, but keep in mind that they measure something different.
    • Investors and analysts find same-store sales useful because it gives you a good idea of how well the retailer is running its stores. Can it keep customers? Can it convince customers to buy even more? Are people buying different things? Same-store sales help answer these questions.
    • Same-store sales can affect a company’s stock price, sometimes dramatically. Many large retailers (most notably, Walmart) have stopped reporting the data because they feel it makes their business too vulnerable to the whims of the market. However, many will still include the information in their quarterly earnings reports.
    • Two groups compile results for all of the retailers reporting same-store sales, the International Council of Shopping Centers and Kantar Retail. They group the stores by category (luxury, discount, etc.) and aggregate the results. These reports are usually available between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. They are useful for giving readers a broad overview of how the industry performed.

Commerce Department monthly sales

  • These figures are released on a different day each month. They represent the government’s best estimate of total sales at retailers large and small across the country. Release dates schedule (PDF)
  • This data includes a much broader range of retailers than same-store sales. It also measures sales at all stores (net sales), not just those open at least a year (same-store sales).
  • The data includes raw numbers and also comparisons to previous months and years. The data also comes “seasonally adjusted” or “not adjusted.” The seasonally adjusted estimates are supposed to reflect the fact that people tend to buy certain products during certain times of the year. For example, they may buy more gas in the summer. That effect is stripped out of seasonally adjusted data. Non-adjusted data is just the raw numbers.
  • For a reporter, the most important chart in this report is the last one – seasonally adjusted sales results compared to previous time periods. The only two you really need to worry about are comparisons to the previous month (July vs. June) and the same month of the previous year (July 2011 vs. July 2010).
  • Typically, economists focus on the month-to-month comparison in this set of data because it can tell you how consumers are progressing throughout the year. Are they buying more or less? Did major world events affect the way they spend their money? However, you may find the year-to-year comparison helpful if you’re writing about a longer-term change.
  • This is only the government’s first crack at a reliable estimate. The number will be revised the following month, though the change is typically small and is not reported.

Personal Income and Outlays

  • These figures are released monthly by the Bureau of Economic Analysis in the Department of Commerce. Generally, retail reporters do not cover these numbers, but if you may find interesting nuggets if you take the time to review them.

    Headless mannequins

    Photo by Flicr user Svadilfari

  • The data covers how much money Americans made during one month and how much they spent – not just on retail, but on rent, mortgages, utilities, services, etc. Think of it as our national checking account. Data dubbed “real” has been adjusted for inflation.
  • Real personal consumption expenditures is a fancy way of showing how much people spent in major categories like cars, food and apparel.
  • This is also where you can find America’s savings rate – the amount of disposable income left over after all of those expenditures. Just a few years ago, our savings rate was near zero. Now, it has rebounded to roughly 5 percent.

comScore Online Sales

  • This Virginia-based firm, comScore Inc.,  measures digital audiences and traffic. During the holiday season, they release regular estimates of online sales and traffic. They are not the only company to calculate these results, but they are one of the most cited.
  • These stats do not include travel spending, auction sites such as eBay and large corporate purchases
  • The data is tracked monthly, weekly and daily, so you can see the effects of big events such as Free Shipping Day, Cyber Monday and Black Friday

ShopperTrak Retail Sales

  • This Chicago company, ShopperTrak, helps major retail chains track the number of people who walk into their stores. They use that information to estimate how many sales retailers are ringing up.
  • ShopperTrak issues retail sales estimates weekly, monthly, quarterly and annually. The numbers typically are not widely cited outside of the holiday season, when investors, analysts and even editors are hungry for every bit of data! The company is particularly useful for estimating the number of people who go shopping during the post-Thanksgiving weekend.

MasterCard Spending Pulse

  • MasterCard analyzes the purchases made on its network and surveys other sources to estimate total retail sales in variety of categories. The data is released monthly.
  • The figures are rarely reported on by themselves, but they are frequently cited in larger trend stories. While government data is reported without comment, MasterCard usually includes some analysis of the reasons behind any large swings.

About the Author

Ylan Q. Mui is a financial reporter at The Washington Post covering consumers and the economy. She has interviewed CEOs at the nation's largest companies, leading politicians and senior government officials as well as unemployed workers, distraught fishermen and disaster victims. She frequently appears on MSNBC, CNBC and National Public Radio and has filed stories from Vietnam, Brazil, Las Vegas and the Gulf Coast. Ylan taught journalism at the University of Maryland and volunteers with several nonprofits that work with the Vietnamese American community.

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