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.

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.