Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Retail Sales Signs of Life: Do Signs Point to Destinations Anymore?

The early days of September have seen a recent flood of positive news: Retail Sales are Showing Signs of Life. Examples of this include articles entitled “August Retail Sales a Pleasant Surprise” released on Sep. 4th by Globe St. and “Retailers Begin to Show Some Signs of Life, But New Leasing Deals Continue to Pose Challenges” by Retail Traffic on Sep. 1st. If readers from another planet saw these articles, they would undoubtedly think that these were the first reports of good news in a while, as we are just “beginning” to see them. But to an earthly observer, there is something odd about these “Signs”. Namely, that we have been reporting to have seen them for over half a year.

All one has to do is Google “Retail Signs of Life” and they will come upon articles such as Wall Street Journal’s “Retail Sales Show Signs of Life” dated March 6th, Internet Retailer’s eerily similar “Retail Sales Show Signs of Life” dated April 7th and “Signs of Life: Slower Decline May Signal Recessions End” by RIS Media on August 4th.

So how can we be purportedly “Beginning to See Signs of Life” for this long and not yet see the actual Life? The answer may lie in what we are using for signs these days.

Take the opening sentence from the Globe St. article cited above:

“Summer is ending with a pleasant surprise for retail observers, with August US comparable-store store sales declining by a better-than-expected 2% from the same month of 2008, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers Chain Store Sales Index.”

Does this not represent a weird prognostication of good health? We are doing better by doing worse; it is a “pleasant surprise” that comparable-store sales declined by 2%? This is close in resemblance to Orwell’s infamous “Doublethink”, having two contradictory thoughts at the same time. Like, “things are worse but better”. In essence, becoming our own devils advocate.

We can see “signs of life” for as long as we want if we simply make the predictions worse than what actually happens. An actual show of improvement will be a trend in which sales do not decline, or even perhaps go up. Those will be the real signs and hopefully we’ll see them soon.

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