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It’s a record! And other thoughts on the consumerism frenzy

black friday Once, in the distant past, Thanksgiving was a sleepy holiday, devoted to food, drink and gratitude.* Now it’s the first day of America’s annual Salute to Shopping, a ritual that extends from the fourth Thursday of November to Dec. 25.

Reporting on this frenzy of consumerism follows numbers — numbers of people shopping in stores, numbers of people visiting retailing websites and numbers of dollars spent.  These numbers are at best imprecise and often misleading, often comparing apples with potatoes.** For example:

A record 247 million Americans shopped on foot and online during the four-day holiday weekend, up 9% from the same period last year, when 226 million made holiday purchases, the National Retail Federation said Sunday.  (MarketWatch)

That lede, which was widely duplicated, is patently absurd. It would have you believe that a number of people equal to 79.2 percent of the U.S. population went shopping on Thanksgiving weekend. It seems to imply that the number includes only Americans, in which case no legal permanent residents (of which there are roughly 13 million) or illegal immigrants (number unknown and unknowable) went to the stores in person or online.

Testy Business Copy Editor Phillip BlanchardOf course, what’s being counted isn’t “Americans,” or people at all. It’s “individuals shopping on multiple days, so one consumer would be counted four times if they shopped on each day of Black Friday weekend.”*** That factoid, included as a footnote in the National Retail Federation press release, exposes the lede as false.

The headline, too, is a puzzle: “Record count of holiday-weekend shoppers.”  Record? What record? What was the old record?  MarketWatch doesn’t say, probably because it’s not in the NRF press release, which reports the “record” but doesn’t back it up.

The most widely distributed story on the shopping numbers was from the Associated Press, of course. AP dutifully reports the “record,” but the detail about “unique shoppers” apparently was too much of a downer for AP, so it was left out entirely. And because AP is AP, its story includes quotes from random shoppers saying nothing of any importance or interest (“I’m basically done,” said [Caitlyn]  Maguire, who spent about $400 over the weekend.) Delete, delete, delete. (To be fair, the New York Times couldn’t resist, either: “I didn’t even want it,” a woman told a Times stringer, referring to a TV set she nevertheless bought. I wonder where Greg Packer was shopping on Black Friday.)

Meanwhile, as more numbers came in, “Black Friday weekend” didn’t look so good.  The next week, another survey, more reliable than the NRF’s, found that sales were down in November at major U.S. stores like Target and Macy’s.

The usual advice — “Don’t do this” — applies, but Barry L. Ritholtz, chief executive of Fusion IQ, said it better in his blog:

The NRF is an industry shill group that produces nonsensical spin that misleads investors, fools the public, and bamboozles incompetent journalists. Any writer who uncritically reprints their nonsense deserves to be fired; any media outlets that publishes their junk should be put quarantined and put on your DO NOT READ list.


* “Gratitude” was replaced by football in modern times.

** “Apples and potatoes,” as a substitute for “apples and oranges” to mean a comparison of dissimilar things, was coined by Emanuel “Manny” Gellman, who was district attorney of Sullivan County, N.Y., in the 1970s. The usage amused reporters who covered Gellman, but as far as I know, no one asked him how or why he came up with it. I can’t help using it, even though I get blank stares in response.

*** It’s not Thanksgiving weekend these days. “Black Friday weekend” is the “official” designation by the NRF.

In Featured, Phillip Blanchard, Retail | Lifestyle.

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