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Which High Street sales figures should we read?

ONS, BRC, CBI ... There are so many different measures of retail sales released every month that it can get confusing. Which ones should you read?

The two main measures of high street performance are the monthly Retail Sales Monitor from the British Retail Consortium (BRC) and KPMG, and the ONS's monthly retail sales figures, which were released today.

The obvious difference between these figures is that the BRC number is collated by the retail industry while the ONS figure is collated by the government. While the BRC figure is provided by the trade body's high street members, the ONS figure is derived from a monthly survey of 5,000 businesses in Great Britain. This survey includes "all large retailers and a representative panel of smaller businesses", the ONS says. Given that the BRC has a large number of small retailers among its membership, some observers say that the BRC figure better reflects the performance of independent shopkeepers.

There is also the issue of detail. The BRC's data is estimated to cover 60pc of the country's retailers. It is therefore fairly comprehensive. However the ONS figure is revised and updated after it is release, so it could be argued that it is a more thorough analysis than the BRC's Sales Monitor. The ONS data also slices and dices the sales figures in a slightly more thorough way than the BRC.

There is then the issue of timing. The BRC number comes out first – within days of the month in question ending – and therefore it often gets more coverage than the ONS figure, which comes out later in the month. It is a smart move on the BRC's part – akin to the British film industry holding the BAFTAS before the Oscars to ensure maximum coverage.

As if this weren't enough, there are numerous other figures to contend with. The CBI releases figures for high street sales volumes every month as part of its Distributive Trades Survey. This survey asks retailers whether they saw sales volumes rise or fall, and works out the balance (for example if 45pc of retailers said that sales rose and 21pc said they fell over a given period, there would be a "balance" of +21pc). While this is a useful measure, it only gives an idea of relative performance between retailers rather than an actual figure. It is a good snapshot of sentiment rather than a comprehensive guide.

Then there are that 'footfall' companies that install light sensors in thousands of shops across the UK and actually count the number of shoppers going in and out. Always useful. Credit card companies have also taken to releasing figures for the amount that consumers are spending on their cards. These can be very revealing, but are subject to one-off blips (Visa's figure next month, for example, will be heavily skewed by all the Olympic ticket sales).

But there is one more equally effective way of analysing how the high street is performing, and this method doesn't involve wading through pages and pages of data.

It involves walking down to your local high street, having a look yourself and then chatting to some shopkeepers. The simple solutions are often the best.

Source : James Hall -

19 May 2011
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