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Taking the retail sales number too seriously

Elvis on Toast

Looking for meaning in slight month-to-month changes in data can be like looking for Elvis's image on a piece of toast. You see what you look for.

The Commerce Department released monthly sales data for the month of April. The number is $434 billion, which means sales are up one tenth of a percent from March. But what does 0.1 percent really represent?

Marlene Morris Towns, a professor of marketing at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University, says the uptick from the previous month's data -- sales for March were about three times as much -- could be explained by spring. Because who wants to shop in bad weather?  

But interpreting a tiny number like the April over March sales increase isn't so easy, or even useful.

“I don’t know that a small trend like that would really say anything major about consumers,” Morris Towns says. “I think it gets tricky when you start looking at small differences from month to month rather than bigger trends.”

Like, year over year. She says comparing monthly numbers can be like finding a picture of Elvis in our toast -- we could be searching for non-existent patterns. And then trying to explain them away with weather, job numbers or holidays. 

"So when you look from month to month," she says "we’re looking for patterns that a lot of times aren’t necessarily patterns, they’re just kind of blips, or small shifts, but don’t really represent a change in consumer attitudes or comfort level with their income or economic status."

Barbara Kahn, director of the Baker Retailing Center at the Wharton School, says that's why many retailers, like JCPenney and Macy's, have stopped reporting their own month-to -month same-store sales.

“It used to be, I don’t know, how many stores reported? Maybe 20 to 30? It’s down to very, very few stores report now, precisely for that reason, because it doesn’t give a clear picture.”

But Kahn notes, the month to month data can be useful. “One of the reasons it’s been looked at so much in the last three, four, five years was to see the signs of the economy. Because retail sales was a very good indicator of whether or not we’re fully out of the recession, and if the economy is rebounding.”

 Kahn says, if you look at April’s sales compared to last year – the numbers are better. The Commerce Department says they're up by 4 percent.

About the author

Sally Herships is a regular contributor to Marketplace.

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