The myth of holiday retail sales stories

It’s that time of the year, when the business media turns its journalistic role over to the public relations department of the business communities.

“Shoppers’ Black Friday Weekend Spending Falls 3%,” the Wall Street Journal screams today, practically imploring us to do our patriotic duty and go spend more money.

After all, that’s the true meaning of the season.

It’s nonsense, Barry Ritholtz, who writes The Big Picture points out today, exposing the source of the claim that news organizations adopt as gospel.

It’s all based on this press release from the National Retail Federation:

“More than 141 million unique shoppers have already or will have shopped by the end of the big Thanksgiving weekend, up from 139 million over the same time frame last year. For those who shopped multiple times over the weekend, the survey found more than 248 million waited in line, took advantage of big discounts offered throughout the mall and shopped on retailers websites, up from 247 million shoppers last year.

According to a National Retail Federation survey conducted by Prosper Insights & Analytics over the weekend, traffic on Thanksgiving Day itself grew 27 percent as nearly 45 million shoppers, or 31.8 percent of holiday shoppers, took advantage of special “turkey day” savings offers, up from 35 million in 2012.

Black Friday was the biggest day: more than 92 million people shopped (65.2%) for apparel, electronics and more, up from nearly 89 million last year.

But there’s no actual data supporting the claim of a bad — as defined by retailers — start to the holiday shopping season, Ritholtz points out. It’s based on a survey of about 4,000 shoppers. It’s “survey silliness,” he says.

Last week, he warned us this was coming:

The annual fabrication of seasonal retail sales data is an American holiday tradition. Sometime over the next week, you can expect to see/read/hear the following lie: “Retail sales over the holiday weekend were surprisingly strong, up XX percent from last year. This bodes well for the upcoming holiday shopping season.”

If this were written accurately, it would instead read something like this: “We don’t know how strong Black Friday sales were just yet, and won’t for a few days. We don’t know how this holiday retail season will stack up against last year’s; we certainly haven’t the foggiest clue as to how the rest of the holiday season will go.”

“Journalists should explain it intelligently, explaining how little these surveys actually correlate to increase in sales,” he says.