Opinion: PwC last week suggested UK games retail halved – but that isn’t true

Last week PricewaterhouseCoopers published what seems to be an inappropriate attack on games retail.

’20 stores a day are closing,’ screams a press release from the accounting giant, issued last Thursday.

"High Street chain store closures soar," cried the BBC as it frantically rewrote the announcement.

You can read the original for yourself here.

Now, as a journalist I of course know that surveys and voxpops in the media will be designed to prove some point or other.

However I don’t think they should ever come at the expense of a whole trade’s reputation. Yet that is exactly what the PwC report last week tried to do.

The report actively says that games were at the forefront of a high street collapse. It implies that 45 per cent, almost half!, of the games retail market vanished last year.

That’s how it was interpreted by the BBC, which had published the report in time with its embargo. That’s how it was interpreted initially by us, and other outlets later that day when the story spread online.

But the ‘data’ is packed full of vagaries that do nothing but misrepresent the business my team and I write about every day. There are discrepancies in what the report says and what is actually going on in the market. And as people point to things like this survey and an evening of fancy digital games getting a pat on the back as further ‘the direction we are going in’, it gets me riled up. It’s lazy to just write off the High Street.

The original report is factually wrong.And I can prove it.

Problem #1: This is an easy one, although it has been tucked at the very end of the original report.

"The analysis is derived from The Local Data Company visiting the top 500 town centres," says the report’s methodology.

"The total number of multiples premises surveyed was 68,238."

Claiming ‘500 town centres’ might sound like a lot to a layperson. Certainly, if you try to think of 500 x the town centre you live near, you think ‘golly, that’s a lot’.

But 500 town centres is, roughly, just one third of the UK’s actual number of town centres, according to planningstatistics.org.uk.

The report is basing its claims on just 500 out of 1,500 locations.

So, really, the report is saying…

‘Our survey of one third of the UK’s town centres shows that 500 town centres lost 45 per cent of their computer game shops in 2012.’

Problem #2: Now, this limited sample size would be fine… if it wasn’t for the added qualifier of ‘top 500’ town centres.

It’s not clear what Local Data defines as ‘top’, and I’ll be honest I haven’t asked them. But top would suggest the better or best town centres, either in terms of size, populace or commercial value.

I would reasonably assume that a ‘top town centre’ also has complementary elements that contribute to said size, population and economy – things like best transport links and accessibility, and more shops or big brands than the other 1,000 town centres. They likely also have the highest footfall, and thus attract a more diverse customer base from a wider variety of backgrounds and lifestyles.

All of them factors that just happen to raise rent prices for shop units, thus making it harder to operate stores – and make them more likelier to close when under pressure.

(It, er, also makes these town centres easier to get to for people putting together surveys of the number of shops in UK town centres.)

So by only looking at the ‘top’ town centres, you aren’t looking at a fair cross section of them all, and immediately distorting the result of this survey.

Maybe that headline should be…

‘The UK’s most competitive and densest UK town centres with the highest likelihood of store closures – although only one third of the total town centres in the country – lost 45 per cent of their computer game shops in 2012’?

You think that’s a mouthful? The other facts in the report are also really fuzzy.

Problem #3: The report says 176 games retailers shut in these ‘top 500’ town centres.

But that’s actually a pretty low figure. It is 50 less than the total number of stores GAME was forced to close last year.

So at this point, the data is actually somehow understating 2012’s most serious element around computer games shops.

Or, hang on, is it? The same data says that this 176 stores represented the ‘45% drop’ in the number of games retailers in 2012.

If 176 is 45 per cent, then 100 per cent – i.e. the total number of games stores at the top 500 town centres prior to 2012’s horrible trading period, pause for breath – …is 391.

In other words, the top 500 town centres in the UK, according to Local Data’s figures, had almost 400 computer game shops.

I don’t doubt that actual statistic, but two things spring to mind.

First, at this point the report’s already-addressed vague presentation makes it easy to assume that this ‘45%’ drop says half the UK games market vanished. It didn’t. That’s where half the problems arise.

The ‘top 500 town centres’ are not representative of the whole picture for ‘computer game shops’.

And the 176 stores lost from the of the UK’s games retail base isn’t 45 per cent, as the report pretty much implies, but just three per cent.

In fact, GAME’s closure plan took the axe to sites in town centres where it often had more than one (and sometimes three!) stores. So there’s a good chance that the ‘top 500 town centres’ weren’t actually left without games retail outlets at all – another inference this report plants in your mind.

Second, ‘400 computer game shops’ is less than ten per cent of the UK’s games retail market.

In fact I understand that new data from the Entertainment Retailers Association will soon confirm that at the close of 2012 there were still over 6,000 different outlets selling games in the UK.

And there are other ways to undermine that ‘400 shops’ stat, even from a specialist point of view. Off the top of my head…

GAME still operates over 300 stores in the UK.

Our MCV database says there are around 200 single-store indies (most of them likely not in the ‘top 500’ town centres dominated by chains and big brands).

A chain like Grainger is past the 100 store mark.

There are large handfuls of multi-site indie chains.

Add that to the thousands of supermarkets (Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Asda and Morrisons), electrical outlets, department stores and general retailers that have shelf space dedicated to video games.

Plus, factor in that when this report was conducted both HMV and Blockbuster (800+ stores between them) were pre-administration.

I reckon that a large majority of UK games retail doesn’t really factor in to the ‘top 500 town centres’ given the diverse scale structure of the business (tiny indies at one end, big box out-of-town grocers at the other, and a few specialists in between). Thus making any claims about the fluctuations in that top-third of town centres merely anecdotal.

All in all, it’s clear that the numbers simply don’t add up when you actually relate them to the genuine games retail business.

Now, I’m biased of course. I am the editor of a trade magazine covering the video games business, predominantly retail and publishing. I am going to be defensive if someone says that specific sector is collapsing. And, yeah, I’ve gone on a bit here to prove a point about a tiny report few people probably read.

Yet I don’t think half-truths and miscalculations about the games business, which seep into mainstream reporting, should be tolerated. I think PwC and Local Data Company have been reckless with their report. I don’t think it appreciates the specialist nature of games retail. I think it is wholly unfair.

Yes, games retail has been properly screwed in many ways in the last 12 months: Publishers released hardly any games; Trading terms are tight; Rents are high; The Nintendo craze is dead; No one is spending the money they once did on entertainment, for a number of factors.

Yes, Pachter was right, UK games retail does appear to be a ‘joke’ in terms of its over competitive nature. Yes, it’s likely the entire physical sales spread was simply stretched too thin to survive in a post-Wii era. (That missing 176 stores are probably where the casual gamer market dried up.) The one line that isn’t a lie in last week’s report is that "computer games shops are falling in numbers" (although maybe the use of ‘computer games’ is a little dated…).

But, no, 45 per cent of games retail didn’t vanish last year. Yet that’s what the BBC seemed to think happened. And that seems to be what PwC and the Local Data Company want people to think happened.

And no, computer games retail doesn’t share the same specific circumstances as "greetings card, clothes, banks, health foods, jewellers, travel agents and recruitment agencies".

So, its the real ‘story’ being peddled here that…

‘The UK’s most competitive and densest town centres with the highest likelihood of store closures – although representing only one third of the total town centres in the country – lost 45 per cent of their computer game shops in 2012, but that’s less than three per cent of the total number of games shops in the country.’?

It seems that way. But I guess that isn’t an exciting headline if need to justify wasting a few months visiting the 500 nicest town centres, huh?

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