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Monday, December 01, 2008

Today's bad graphs

"The Good Sheet”, #011 is being distributed by my local Starbucks, and probably by every other Starbucks in the US this week.

The graphics are pretty, but from a statistical standpoint pretty awful. Since the same graphics are available online, you can see them in all their glory and context here: http://awesome.goodmagazine.com/goodsheet/goodsheet011HolidayEconomy.html

First of all, we have this holiday economy chart with the red concentric circles.

Note in the center red circle we have $375B and on the outside circle we have $474.5B. No way that fits any possible metric for using charts like this. That's roughly a 20-25% increase, but the area of the $474.5B circle is vastly larger.

Second, we have the bar chart at the bottom. Luckily the actual figures are below the bars. You can see that 2002 was slightly less than 2001 in these figures – but that’s not shown in the actual bars, which seem to go up in an uninterrupted stream from left to right.

On that same bar chart, we can see the undercutting of the basic argument. The point of the entire 16 page handout is that spending on the holiday is an important thing to do because it's such an important season for retail sales. But is retail spending really as disproportionate as we have been led to believe? In 1998, retail sales were about $2 trillion. But Holiday sales (November and December) were $405 billion. So, in two months of the year (17%) we have 20% of the retail spending. That’s higher than average, but not drastically so.

What changes is that during the winter holidays a lot of the retail sales are spent on crap we don’t need / can defer / are better off without. If we look at the categories good.is breaks out, we see lots of stuff we don’t need: $700m in candle sales, 30-35 million Christmas trees, $9.3B in jewelry sales stick out as prime examples. Without Christmas, November and December would be expected to be a slow time for retail sales, as January and February are.