Sunday, June 14, 2009

When the Story Doesn't Tell a Story

This little snippet by Phyllis Korkki in today's New York Times is an example of when a statistic doesn't really illustrate the point being made. The gist of this article is that enclosed, climate controlled malls that so dominated our collective retailing consciousness in the 1980s are becoming relics. While I don't disagree with the basic premise--for years I have been reading that the enclosed shopping center has been on its way out, and thank god for that. The problem is the statistic that is used to prove the case.
"Of the 102,000 shopping centers in the United States, some 99 percent are open-air centers."
The accompanying bar chart more or less illustrates that point--although who wants to wager that the ochre-shaded area at the top of each bar only represents 1 percent of the bar?--I wouldn't. However, the real problem is that the "fact" (99 percent of 102,000 shopping centers are open-air) doesn't tell us anything because it doesn't provide any kind of comparison to what the case has been historically. For instance was it 95 percent last year? Was it 90 percent in 2000? The chart seems to indicate that that is not the case. In fact the chart seems to indicate that the percentages have remained fairly constant since 2000. So where is the story? Maybe in 1990 the percentage of enclosed malls was 20 percent not the current 1 percent. Boy, howdy then you would have a story. Or would you? That was 19 years ago when I was 20 (sigh).

With no historical benchmark, the fact cited is pretty useless. I could also mention how neither the statistic nor the story say anything about what fits into the definition of "shopping center". My guess is that the total number of shopping centers includes all sorts of retail environments that don't necessarily approach the size or regional draw associated with enclosed "giant malls". So maybe the story should not be about enclosure, but rather about shopping center size and retail mix.

However, I shouldn't quibble with the shallow analysis of this USA Today-style factoid. The little snippet falls under the heading "The Count" so I guess it was meant to be a pithy little glimpse of something. Even if that was the case, the least the Times could have done is given the story at least a scintilla of relevancy by giving us a historical comparison.