Comps Schomps

November 18, 2013

As you go about your usual yuletide gladding over the next six weeks and try to make some sense of what's going on at retail, let me throw this bah humbug into your eggnog.

Comp-store sales numbers are virtually worthless this year and will be so for the foreseeable future.

We all know that the monthly sales numbers that retailers have put out since Sears met Roebuck have been the backbone of understanding which retailers are doing well and which ones not so much. It wasn't always precise, but it was the best barometer out there.

We also all know that it's always been possible for a well-meaning, but business-challenged retailer to slightly cook the books on comp-store numbers. By moving a sale from one month to another, adding an extra coupon or two or perhaps even misrepresenting remodeled or relocated stores, retailers could alter any given month without a whole lot of effort.
I know you're shocked, but it's been done.

Over the past couple of years, more and more retailers have moved away from reporting on a monthly basis. Walmart was among the first and other retailers, like Bed Bath & Beyond, have basically never done it. But there were still enough stores out there giving their results that a story could be told about the month in retailing.

Then along came this thing called the Internet. Perhaps you've heard of it? Anyway, as more and more business started getting transacted online, the picture got blurrier and blurrier.

Was a store's website a comparable store? Or if it had been redesigned, reinvigorated or somehow enhanced with more viability, was that now a new store, not subject to comps?

Or was the whole online area just totally incompatible with conventional definitions of traditional brick-and-mortar stores and therefore something that couldn't be computed no matter how you worked your Excel spreadsheet?

The answer is all of the above. There is clearly no consensus out there on how to account for online sales in the context of comp-store sales and that's why paying the least bit of attention to any numbers that are published is an exercise in retail regurgitation.

So, what do you do? The answer is not pretty, but here's one suggestion. With retailers opening relatively few stores these days and online business continuing to climb, the most honest and representative gauge of a store's results is in fact total sales for the month and/or quarter.

That's the best way to really understand who's been naughty and who's been nice this holiday season.