There are so many factors affecting retail at present that basing predictions on the latest economic reports can prove somewhat precarious.

Economic reports seem to be like buses. You wait for ages and then four turn up at once. Last week they seemed to leave the depot together, all promising to take us somewhere nice for the summer.

Nielsen’s report on consumer confidence was the first to pull up to the kerb with figures that seem to back up those released by GfK. Both showed consumers looking at the high street with a more optimistic gaze, with Neilsen putting consumer confidence at a nine-year high as opposed to GfK’s more buoyant outlook of a 13-year peak.

Then came the CBI’s quarterly Distributive Trades Survey - a measure I’ve never been particularly impressed by - reporting expectations for June riding on a 27-year high, although in reality orders were only growing at their fastest pace since 2010.

Footfall monitoring company Springboard also announced footfall on the high street over the Bank Holiday weekend eclipsed that of shopping malls with an increase of 4.4% as opposed to an almost equal drop in retail parks and shopping centres.

Finally Asda’s income tracker proclaimed that us lucky Brits now have around £17 a week more in our eager mitts than we did this time last year.

If we’re to believe these rosy statistics, high street store operators can at last cast the rose-tinted spectacles from their reddened eyes and peer at the horizon with renewed hope. We now just have to for wait for those armies of revitalised shoppers to beat down our doors with fists so full of cash we’ll barely be able to fit it all into dusty till drawers previously inhabited only by moths and a few dog-eared copies of the last set of reports that promised us roughly the same thing a few months ago.

You might guess from my barely disguised flippancy that I don’t personally put a great deal of store by these reports. And you’d probably be right.

“You might guess from my barely disguised flippancy that I don’t personally put a great deal of store by these reports.”

Nielsen’s epistle for example was carried out using a sample of respondents from online shoppers - a group who are already looking to buy (or why are they on the internet being asked about shopping?), so will naturally be pre-disposed to making a purchase.

Back in the real world

The CBI’s survey is a constant source of bemusement to me, and many of my own suppliers that I have conversations with. They appear to have their heads in much loftier clouds than most of us, being twice removed from the actual consumer transaction. In my mind the impact on the high street of an estimate about probable orders is tenuous at best, and has been proved to be such on many previous occasions.

In terms of footfall I’d say that Springboard are one of the more accurate companies out there, but a broad headcount usually leaves me shrugging my shoulders, as such a number isn’t much use without the associated conversion data.

Income trackers are the statistical equivalent of the wet seaweed barometer, based as they are on a set of constantly fluctuating, notional measures. And in the end is a figure like £17 a week really going to make that much difference to the behaviour of the average consumer? Not if other analyses are to be believed which suggest that people are more likely to remain in their current pre-programmed behavioural loop of saving more and spending less after being ingrained with fiscal paranoia for the past seven years.

“Income trackers are the statistical equivalent of the wet seaweed barometer, based as they are on a set of constantly fluctuating, notional measures.”

And to a large extent those people are right. There are so many factors in the shifting economic landscape right now that basing any predictions, let alone business decisions, on these sorts of analyses would be somewhat precarious.

This was neatly demonstrated on Friday when the comparison between Neilsen’s and GfK’s figures seemingly evaporated after GfK released new numbers showing consumer confidence fell to a five-month low in May, ostensibly dented by uncertainty surrounding the general election.

A happy medium

I’m all for a bit of optimism, but it seems like we rarely have realism in terms our business expectation these days. A few years ago I was bemoaning a similar level of ill-founded pessimism as being the harbinger of more doom and gloom than was healthy. I’m equally sceptical about skeins of upbeat predictions. Is a happy medium too much to ask for?

With rent and rates still at record levels and unrealistically low interest rates just waiting to be let off the leash, I think a healthy sprinkling of caution needs to be infused into any ideas that we’re about to see a renaissance in high street retail. I could be wrong.  In fact I hope I am, but in the end the only reliable statistic for a business is that figure on the bottom of your profit and loss account.

Personally I’d prefer to see what’s in the emergency Budget before I invest in any bunting. Or maybe wait for the next report to see what that has on board.  And just like the Clapham omnibus, I’m sure there’ll be another one along any minute.

  • Ian Middleton founded jewellery retailer Argenteus