Up Front: July 2010

Historical data

By now, alert readers may have noticed an amazing consistency in the retail-sales numbers we run in our NC Trend section. They’ve been so consistent that, in fact, they haven’t changed for going on five months now. It’s not that we have forgotten about them or have some superstitious attachment to last September’s figures for taxable retail sales. They just haven’t been updated by the state Department of Revenue.

One of the difficulties in compiling a section that draws statistics from so many different places each month is that occasionally, maybe once or twice a year, one of our sources falls behind and fails to get us updates in time to make our deadline. To preserve continuity, we grit our teeth and run the latest numbers we have, even if that means occasionally repeating the information. We usually don’t have to do that more than once.

Since its premiere issue in October 1981, Business North Carolina has used retail sales statewide — and since 1985, in selected cities — to gauge consumer spending. The Department of Revenue has long been slower than most agencies and companies that contribute information for the NC Trend section, but we learned to live with that — as long as we could predict how far behind its data would be.

Alas, we can no longer do that. Worse, it can no longer do that. We first ran the September sales figures from its October report in our March issue, when most of our other sources already had given us their December figures. Since then, there have been no updates. But because it is such an important economic indicator, we kept taxable retail sales in its spot — waiting for the data to start flowing again.

I asked the guy who oversees crunching those numbers for the Revenue Department what the holdup was and when we could expect new numbers. He couldn’t give a time frame. For official comment, he referred me to his boss. A call to her produced a callback from a department spokeswoman. She said she would try to find out what was going on.

Two days later, she called back to refer me to a statement on the department’s website, which I had already seen. It said the department had switched reporting forms and had encountered unforeseen programming problems. It promised updates “soon.” Three months had passed since the statement was posted. Why wasn’t any testing done to make sure the data could be gleaned from the new form before making the switch? I asked the spokeswoman. She promised to get back to me on that one.

That night, I got an e-mail from her with a short statement from Linda Millsaps, the department’s chief operating officer. She acknowledged that the data is useful to local government and many North Carolina businesses. “However, current State budget and resource limitations have eliminated our ability to continue providing it at this time. Hopefully we will be able to offer this information in the near future.”

I would like to keep trying to get a more thorough explanation and, even more to the point, provide our readers with some timely data. But we have to get a magazine out sometime this month.