Lies, Damned Lies & Black Friday sales figures

black_friday (1)It’s that time of year again, so everyone get ready for the annual storm of Black Friday BS.

Stories about the success of Black Friday/Cyber Monday  are as inevitable as taxes and death but nowhere near as reliable. It goes like this: "Great Black Friday sales numbers mean a big shopping season. Insert somebody’s numbers to support this and then a quote or two from an analyst." Publish, forget, and hope no one notices that they are ALWAYS — even in good economic times — WRONG. In the past these stories have been an embarrassment. Now they are colluding with retailers to overcome the facts in the hopes that somehow shear massive denial will rescue us. (In a sign of how desperate retailers are Sears, The Gap and others are going to be open on Thanksgiving.)

This isn’t whistling past the graveyard, it’s renting a whole symphony orchestra. Here’s the facts from last year’s serenade of nonsense:

Although the actual sales figures would later show a whopping 0.5% increase in sales, here’s the AP’s early report on what should be called Bogus Saturday:

The nation’s shoppers took advantage of deals on toys and TVs with some renewed vigor in stores and online on Black Friday after a year of concentrating their spending on basic necessities. Though the first numbers won’t be available until Saturday, early reports indicated bigger crowds than last year, with people buying more and even throwing in some items for themselves.

“Though the first numbers won’t be available until Saturday”? That’s shorthand for “we’re making this up.”

Stores were encouraged that shoppers appeared to be a little freer with their spending. Best Buy, Sears Holdings Corp. and Mall of America, as well as mall operators Taubman Centers and Simon Property Group, offered signs people were buying more than last year.

“Offered signs”? Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?

An average of about 1,000 people were in line for midnight openings at Toys R Us stores, CEO Gerald Storch said. After setting aside 100 Zhu Zhu Pets hamsters for each location, Toys R Us came back with several shipments of the hot toy for several of its stores Friday.

And Mr. Storch is certainly an unbiased observer with no vested interest in the outcome of this story. Fortunately Mr. Storch’s “facts” were backed up by none other than Macy’s CEO Terry J. Lundgren. Lundgren said more than 5,000 people were at Macy’s Herald Square store in New York early Friday, slightly more than last year. (WHERE DO THESE NUMBERS COME FROM? Is there someone whose job it is to count the number of people in line? )

Having passed off the above as news, the AP then goes to a person-on-the-street for further uninformed opinion.

Dondrae May, a manager at a Best Buy in Framingham, Mass., said shoppers started lining up at 4 p.m. Thursday — 13 hours before opening. He said shoppers were filling their baskets with more items than a year ago, when they were shellshocked after the financial meltdown.

Everyone repeat after me: The plural of anecdote is NOT data. The plural of anecdote is NOT data. The plural of anecdote is NOT data. The plural of anecdote is NOT data. The plural of anecdote is NOT data….

At least Bloomberg had the decency to make it clear the adjective for the sales figure was alleged, not proven.

Retailers reported “strong” shopper traffic on Black Friday as discounts on televisions, toys and computers drew budget-conscious crowds across the U.S., the National Retail Federation said.

Although Bloomberg also cites a retail CEO (Best Buy) as saying sales are better, they don’t pass off his opinion as anything but that. (BTW, Storch & Dunn’s questionable numbers are also quoted in the Bloomberg story and in the Wall Street Journal. Some PR agency is earning its commission!)

That said, Bloomberg does pass along this piece of genius seemingly without pausing to ask where these statistics come from:

“There’s a little more traffic than last year across the board, maybe 10 percent,” Bill Taubman, chief operating officer of Taubman Centers Inc., a U.S. real estate investment trust with 24 malls, said in a telephone interview yesterday.

Thank G-d for the Wall Street Journal which had the common decency to run a story poking holes in all these predictions.

Black Friday’s predictive powers are limited. Although the day after Thanksgiving was the No. 1 shopping day in terms of sales last year, when economic turmoil made it a retail free-for-all, it typically is eclipsed by the last Saturday before Christmas. Similarly, "Cyber Monday," the Monday after Thanksgiving, hasn’t been the top day for online sales since the term was created five years ago.

Lies, Damned Lies and Black Friday sales figures

firesale-savingsStories about the success of Black Friday/Cyber Monday  are as inevitable as taxes and death but nowhere near as reliable. It goes like this: "Great Black Friday sales numbers mean a big shopping season. Insert somebody’s numbers to support this and then a quote or two from an analyst." Publish, forget, and hope no one notices that they are ALWAYS — even in good economic times — WRONG. In the past these stories have been an embarrassment. Now they are colluding with retailers to overcome the facts in the hopes that somehow shear massive denial will rescue us.

This isn’t whistling past the graveyard, it’s renting a whole symphony orchestra.

Although the actual sales figures would later show a whopping 0.5% increase in sales, here’s the AP’s early report on what should be called Bogus Saturday:

The nation’s shoppers took advantage of deals on toys and TVs with some renewed vigor in stores and online on Black Friday after a year of concentrating their spending on basic necessities. Though the first numbers won’t be available until Saturday, early reports indicated bigger crowds than last year, with people buying more and even throwing in some items for themselves.

“Though the first numbers won’t be available until Saturday”? That’s shorthand for “we’re making this up.”

Stores were encouraged that shoppers appeared to be a little freer with their spending. Best Buy, Sears Holdings Corp. and Mall of America, as well as mall operators Taubman Centers and Simon Property Group, offered signs people were buying more than last year.

“Offered signs”? Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?

An average of about 1,000 people were in line for midnight openings at Toys R Us stores, CEO Gerald Storch said. After setting aside 100 Zhu Zhu Pets hamsters for each location, Toys R Us came back with several shipments of the hot toy for several of its stores Friday.

And Mr. Storch is certainly an unbiased observer with no vested interest in the outcome of this story. Fortunately Mr. Storch’s “facts” were backed up by none other than Macy’s CEO Terry J. Lundgren. Lundgren said more than 5,000 people were at Macy’s Herald Square store in New York early Friday, slightly more than last year. (WHERE DO THESE NUMBERS COME FROM? Is there someone whose job it is to count the number of people in line? )

Having passed off the above as news, the AP then goes to a person-on-the-street for further uninformed opinion.

Dondrae May, a manager at a Best Buy in Framingham, Mass., said shoppers started lining up at 4 p.m. Thursday — 13 hours before opening. He said shoppers were filling their baskets with more items than a year ago, when they were shellshocked after the financial meltdown.

Everyone repeat after me: The plural of anecdote is NOT data. The plural of anecdote is NOT data. The plural of anecdote is NOT data. The plural of anecdote is NOT data. The plural of anecdote is NOT data….

At least Bloomberg had the decency to make it clear the adjective for the sales figure was alleged, not proven.

Retailers reported “strong” shopper traffic on Black Friday as discounts on televisions, toys and computers drew budget-conscious crowds across the U.S., the National Retail Federation said.

Although Bloomberg also cites a retail CEO (Best Buy) as saying sales are better, they don’t pass off his opinion as anything but that. (BTW, Storch & Dunn’s questionable numbers are also quoted in the Bloomberg story and in the Wall Street Journal. Some PR agency is earning its commission!)

That said, Bloomberg does pass along this piece of genius seemingly without pausing to ask where these statistics come from:

“There’s a little more traffic than last year across the board, maybe 10 percent,” Bill Taubman, chief operating officer of Taubman Centers Inc., a U.S. real estate investment trust with 24 malls, said in a telephone interview yesterday.

Thank G-d for the Wall Street Journal which had the common decency to run a story poking holes in all these predictions.

Black Friday’s predictive powers are limited. Although the day after Thanksgiving was the No. 1 shopping day in terms of sales last year, when economic turmoil made it a retail free-for-all, it typically is eclipsed by the last Saturday before Christmas. Similarly, "Cyber Monday," the Monday after Thanksgiving, hasn’t been the top day for online sales since the term was created five years ago.

The end of the end of the Great Recession

It is hard to believe that a man is telling the truth when you know that you would lie if you were in his place. – Mencken

Remember all that robust economic activity we heard so much about last month? The stuff about the economy expanding at 3.5% for the third quarter of this year and “officially” marking an end to the Great Recession? Ooops.

It was only 2.8% according to revised Commerce Department numbers. (And every reporter who is even semi-competent knew this reduction was coming. This number will be revised at least once more.)

That 0.7% difference is big. It means the basis of all this activity was mostly a result of the Federal gov’t running up its credit card and not by the creation of goods and services as a result of non-government created demand. Most of the spending was the result of government subsidies of the housing and auto industries via the Cash For Clunkers program and the $8,000 tax “credit” for 1st time homebuyers. It had been hoped that these would spur ancillary spending and thereby help the economy. This was not the case. People spent only on the things they could get a deal on.

And even that spending was problematic as the FHA seems intent on recreating the subprime insanity that got us into this mess.

Robert Toll, CEO of Toll Brothers, said today at a New York home builders conference that FHA lending could create another huge crisis in the mortgage industry, referring to it as “yesterday’s subprime.” He also went as far as calling it a “definite train wreck,” noting that a “flag will go up in the next couple of months” for bail out money.

It is worth pointing out that Mr. Toll’s money comes from the FHA so he  has a vested interest in NOT saying this.

Nor were individuals the only ones to reign rein in their spending:. Via AP: “Companies cut back spending on commercial construction — a weak spot in the economy — at 15.1% annualized pace. That was deeper than the 9% annualized cut back first estimated.” On the plus side: Corporate profits climbed by the most in five years.

Oh, wait, you mean you aren’t a corporation?

OOOOOPS, again.

Maybe that’s not good news.

The AP story tries so hard to offer both sides of the story that it contradicts itself in places:

For the current quarter, some economists think economic growth will slow to around a 2.5 percent pace, though others say it could reach 3 percent if holiday sales turn out better than expected. [I would like some drug testing done on those “others”.]

Most say they think the economy will weaken again next year, with growth at a pace of around 1 percent as the impact of the $787 billion stimulus package fades and consumers keep tightening their belts under the strain of high unemployment and hard-to-get credit.*

So for some reason consumers are going to shell out in this quarter but then stop. I may have missed it but I don’t think there has been a subsidy for Christmas presents. Unlike some other economists, I think most people know January follows December and behavior that won’t make sense then doesn’t make sense now.

By the way, the professional wishful thinking classes will be out in force for Black Friday so make sure not to believe a single damn thing they say. Reporting false bright numbers about the coming weekend is an annual and longstanding tradition. See: Journalists still too lazy to report truth about Black Friday

Journalists deeply irritated at working over the long weekend writes stories that begin: “Great Black Friday sales numbers mean a big shopping season. Insert somebody’s numbers to support this and then a quote or two from an analyst.” Publish, forget, and hope no one notices that they are ALWAYS — even in good economic times — WRONG.

I don’t know which irritates me more, that we are being lied to so badly or that we are so eager to go along with it.

PS: The FDIC Deposit Insurance fund is now in “Negative Territory” (ie, broke) as the number of bank failures continues to increase.

*The article has a great example of how journalists say what they believe to be true without getting caught at it: “What’s not clear is whether the recovery can continue after government supports are gone. If consumers clam up, the economy could tip back into recession.”

Journalists still too lazy to report truth about Black Friday

firesale-savingsBlack Friday/Cyber Monday news stories are as inevitable as taxes and death but nowhere near as reliable. It goes like this: “Great Black Friday sales numbers mean a big shopping season. Insert somebody’s numbers to support this and then a quote or two from an analyst.” Publish, forget, and hope no one notices that they are ALWAYS — even in good economic times — WRONG. In the past these stories have been an embarrassment at best. This year they are irresponsible. We have gone from whistling past the graveyard to bringing an entire symphony of wishful thinking.

This is the press release version but it isn’t all that different from the putative news stories on the same topic:

According to the National Retail Federation’s 2008 Black Friday Weekend survey, conducted by BIGresearch, more than 172 million shoppers visited stores and websites over Black Friday weekend, up from 147 million shoppers last year. Shoppers spent an average of $372.57 this weekend, up 7.2 percent over last year’s $347.55. Total spending reached an estimated $41.0 billion.

Which is almost exactly what CBS News “reported”:

Despite all the talk of an economic slowdown, the holiday shopping season is off to an “energetic” start, according to a retail survey out tonight, reports CBS News correspondent Randall Pinkston. The survey says 172 million shoppers visited stores and websites this weekend – up 15 million from last year, and the average shopper spent more than $372, up 7.2 percent from a year ago. (The “analyst” in the CBS story is “a manager for the largest mall company in America.”  He says its going to be a great shopping season. What a surprise!)

And CBS is hardly alone. There’s this from MarketWatch:

Then, as inevitably as the Cubs not making the World Series, we get:

After a robust start to the holiday season, many stores struggled with disappointing business in December, and a shopping surge in the final days before and after Christmas wasn’t strong enough to make up for lost sales.

The above quote is from last year when the mirage of our economy was still going strong. Fortunately(?) this year we are not having to wait for the final numbers to come in for corrections to the original stories to be run.

But the question remains as to why the above articles don’t run every year. The only story there could possibly be here is if someone did a little research to see if there is EVER any correlation between the Black Friday numbers and actual holiday season shopping results.
And on the topic of Cyber Monday — it is nothing but PR piffle. The heaviest online shopping days of the holiday season are a week before Christmas as the shipping deadlines approach.

Why you shouldn’t read any stories about Black Friday

There’s nothing worse than having to fill a newspaper or broadcast over Thanksgiving weekend. Nothing happens in the US. Well, nothing happens that any beat reporter is covering, which is what the US press means when it says nothing happens. Of course, the US consumer being the US consumer, things happening in the rest of the world aren’t of any interest. Nonetheless the media still must fill all that space with something. This is why every year we get something like:

Preliminary data showed welcome and unexpectedly strong shopping figures for the Black Friday weekend.

This could have been written in 2006 (“The nation’s retailers had a strong start to the holiday shopping season, according to results announced Saturday by a national research group that tracks sales at mall-based stores.“), 2005 (“Steep discounts, enticing rebates and expanded hours drew hordes to the nation’s retailing meccas Friday, and merchants saw hopeful signs that consumer spending will be lively for the holidays.“), 2004 (“In an early sign that buying will be strong this year, Visa USA said Saturday that the total of its credit and debit card transactions was more than $4.1 billion, up 15.5 percent from the same day last year.“), etc.

Just as surely as a Cubs collapse, these stories are followed by stories later in the week and/or month which say

But the hot streak cooled down over the weekend as stores returned to their regular hours and promotions were scaled back.”

The truth is that Black Friday sales numbers are as accurate as sheep entrails when it comes to predicting the holiday season’s retail sales. The only real news here is that anyone actually pays attention to these numbers.

Bad editor! No latte for you!