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Just for a minute, let’s stop worrying about ‘back-to-school’ and fashion trends. The bigger question is square footage growth and productivity in a consumer downturn.

The gap between sales growth and comp growth for US retail has widened by 4 points in 14 months ending August. What does that mean? Either a) new store productivity is knocking the cover off the ball, or b) square footage growth remains unchanged despite ominous signs that square footage growth is too high. I think we can all agree that it’s the latter.

We’re at a critical juncture. Looking at the past two recessions (90/91, and ’01) as well as 4 other notable consumer slowdowns (’94-’95, ’97, ’03, ’06), we’ve never seen this gap widen consecutively by more than 15 months. Something’s gotta give. Either a) the consumer needs to pick up, b) square footage growth needs to slow, or c) productivity continues to erode.

I’m hoping for option ‘B’. But as we say here at Research Edge, ‘Hope’ is a lousy investment process.

Sales growth less comp growth is heading the wrong way.