Moving to online data collection

Rhian Murphy explains how the move online for the Retail Sales Inquiry (RSI) survey has already brought early benefits.

The Retail Sales Inquiry (RSI) is a monthly survey that collects turnover data from retail businesses to provide a picture of consumer spending in Great Britain. It’s one of the ‘earliest’ economic indicators, meaning results are published soon after data collection – so July’s figures, for example, are published in August. Because of this, prompt responses from businesses are crucial to report current movements.

In December 2016, the RSI moved to online data collection. Previously, data was collected either via a paper questionnaire or over the telephone, which relied on retailers to either post their form or call in with their data. Teams in ONS would also call companies to response chase to ensure a good response rate.

Early benefits

The move online has brought early benefits already. The response rate is always a major consideration for the quality of surveys and – while RSI is mandatory – the quick turnaround of the output means that sometimes data aren’t submitted in time for analysis. Online data collection has helped speed up this process as retailers can log on at any time of the day to submit their data at their own convenience each month. Data is received earlier in the reference period and continue to come in steadily throughout the month, which helps to manage processing and quality assurance.

Ancedotal evidence

The quality of anecdotal evidence from retailers has also improved since moving online. Feedback from retailers is important to explain reasons for movements in their sales for a particular month and provides a fuller picture of consumer behavior. The online platform encourages feedback and retailers are providing a lot more information about their sales to support our analysis.

We’ve also found that communication between ONS and retailers has also improved and is more flexible. When retailers are late submitting data, the online system can send out timed and automatic alerts to remind companies. This is an efficient reminder and reaches the respondent instantly, perhaps providing a more effective call to action!

By speeding up the process by which we obtain the data from retailers, we have more time to produce more detailed analysis and to provide the comprehensive figures for business and government to make key decisions on the economy. As we like to say: ‘Better Statistics – Better Decisions!’

Rhian Murphy is Head of Retail Sales at ONS