Last week, I mentioned that Black Friday skepticism had “finally gone mainstream.” For a brief moment, I thought the MSM might have redeemed itself from the usual idiocy. My optimism was apparently misplaced.

Before we address some of the more egregious errors, a brief recap: Every year around this time, the National Retail Federation (NRF) commissions a survey on holiday shopping with BIGinsight. They ask people what they spent on Shopmas last year, and what they plan on spending this year. From that survey, they then make projections as to what total retail sales will be for the Thanksgiving weekend.

We know from both academic studies and experience that people are very bad at forecasting their own behavior. We also have a years of history to look at what these NRF surveys claim and what actually sales data looks like. In 2005, the NRF forecast a 22% increase in holiday shopping gains for the Thanksgiving weekend. The results? Up just 1 percent. 2006:  An 18.9% forecast, versus reality of 5%. 2007 NRF forecast a 4%versus an  “unexpected” drop of 0.4% — the weakest holiday season since 2002. In 2008, they somehow forecast gains of 2.2% — sales actually fell 6%. In 2010, Black Friday weekend sales rise were estimated at 9.2%; they rose 5.5%.

I did not forget 2009: The NRF’s 2009 Holiday Consumer Intentions and Actions Survey for holiday shopping reflected an awe-inspiring drop of 43% versus 2008. Sales actually rose about 3%.

The data supports the theory: There is zero correlation between what people say their gift shopping intentions are on these surveys, and what they actually spend.

This might lead you to think that the media to be somewhat circumspect in reporting the breathless nonsense from an industry PR group; that merely reprinting a press release is not actual journalism; Perhaps you might suspect a lack of basic math skills would dissuade you from financial reporting.

However, you would be wrong.

A quick review of some of the media that should know better, with a special shout out to two media people who should know better: 60 Minutes / CBS anchor Scott Pelley, and (They both stunk the joint far below their usual commitments to excellence). The rest of the Hall of Shame are simply the usual suspects:
Black Friday Hall of Shame 

Bloomberg: Retailers Keep Deals Flowing on 13% Holiday-Sales Jump

“Spending per shopper averaged $423 — $25 more than last year — from Thursday to Sunday, while total spending increased nearly 13 percent, to an estimated $59.1 billion, according to a survey the National Retail Federation released Sunday afternoon.”

No, sales did not jump 13% — what rose were people’s spending intentions (which we know are false). Kudos to Bloomberg’s Michael McKee who mentioned on the television show In The Loop how wrong this reporting was.

CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley: You would not think that a 60 Minutes Anchor would be just another rip & reader, but the lead story on Monday was just that — a word for word repeat of the NRF press release nonsense.  Simply awful.
CS Monitor: Black Friday record: Weekend sales up 13 percent

Black Friday record pushes spending to $59 billion over four days. By extending Black Friday, retailers made it easy to shop and drew in record numbers of shoppers.

No, no it didn’t.

Chicago Tribune: Upbeat start to holiday shopping with $59B weekend

“Spending per shopper averaged $423 — $25 more than last year — from Thursday to Sunday, while total spending increased nearly 13 percent, to an estimated $59.1 billion, according to a survey the National Retail Federation released Sunday afternoon.”

Well, at least they said it was a survey from the NRF.

NewsdayBlack Friday weekend sales hit record $59B

An estimated 139.4 million shoppers spent 12.8 percent more than the same period last year, according to the National Retail Federation. Online retail sales on Black Friday also topped $1 billion for the first time.

At least they noted it was an estimate; too bad they did not note its awful track record.

CNN: Black Friday shopping hits a new record

Customers flocked in to early store openings on Thanksgiving day to scoop up “doorbuster” deals. A record 247 million shoppers visited stores and websites in the post-Thanksgiving Black Friday weekend this year, up 9% from 226 million last year, according to a survey by the National Retail Federation released Sunday.

Individual shoppers also shelled out more money — spending $423 this weekend, up from $398 last year. Total spending over the four-day weekend reached a record $59.1 billion, a 13% increase from $52.4 billion last year, according to the NRF.

I enjoyed the Weekly Standard mocking CNN by noting according to CNN: All Adults in America Went Shopping on Black Friday Weekend

ReutersBlack Friday sales down due to Thursday deals: ShopperTrak

ShopperTrak, which counts foot traffic in retail stores, estimated Black Friday sales of $11.2 billion, down 1.8 percent from the same day last year.

“More retailers than last year began their ‘doorbuster’ deals on Thursday, Thanksgiving itself,” said ShopperTrak founder Bill Martin. “Those Thursday deals attracted some of the spending that is usually meant for Friday.”

Retail foot traffic rose 3.5 percent to almost 308 million store visits on Black Friday, with the largest increases in the U.S. Midwest, ShopperTrak also reported.

Counting foot traffic does not correlate with sales. It is at best a rough estimate. Try npot to put a dollar sales number on it.

USA TodayRetailers hail Black Friday weekend as best ever

Retailers are already calling the biggest holiday shopping “weekend” of the season the best ever.  All signs point to a huge Cyber Monday, as more consumers turned to computers and mobile devices to begin looking for deals over the weekend.  More shoppers came out Thanksgiving night, more shoppers hit stores on Black Friday, more shopped online. And everyone spent more.

Notice how similar these stories all read? That is because they essentially copy the press release verbatim.

Associated Press: Black Friday online sales surpassed $1 billion for the first time

All told, a record 247 million shoppers visited stores and websites over the four-day weekend starting on Thanksgiving, up 9.2 percent of last year, according to a survey of 4,000 shoppers that was conducted by research firm BIGinsight for the trade group. Americans spent more too: The average holiday shopper spent $423 over the entire weekend, up from $398 last year. Total spending over the four-day weekend totaled $59.1 billion, up 12.8 percent from 2011.

That’s your Black Friday hall of shame for 2012.

It is my assumption that the NRF propaganda is an attempt to create an environment of social pressure: EVERYONE is shopping, so you better get out there and shop too! Only one hopes the media would do a better job of checking that. Only they don’t. The media’s job should be to inform — not MISINFORM — their readership. On Black Friday reporting, they are failing miserably.

(Perhaps I should do this each year, and circulate the post to various media observers . . .)

Category: Consumer Spending, Data Analysis, Financial Press

Please use the comments to demonstrate your own ignorance, unfamiliarity with empirical data and lack of respect for scientific knowledge. Be sure to create straw men and argue against things I have neither said nor implied. If you could repeat previously discredited memes or steer the conversation into irrelevant, off topic discussions, it would be appreciated. Lastly, kindly forgo all civility in your discourse . . . you are, after all, anonymous.

19 Responses to “Black Friday’s Media Hall of Shame”

  1. Winston says:

    Barry, where and when should one look for honest-to-goodness real numbers?

    In the past two years, if only briefly, the NAR had a “Come to Jesus” meeting with itself over the puffery in housing sales. Might we expect something similar from the NRF?


  2. gordo365 says:

    Just replace reporters with PR news feed. What could go wrong?

    Oh – there’s this bit of “inside baseball” info on how that works.

  3. crutcher says:

    “The media’s job should be to inform — not MISINFORM — their readership.”

    Says who? Not the consumer of media, not the shareholders of media companies, and not the government. Who’s left?

    If MSM was doing what they “should” do well in your outraged opinion, they’d be failing their shareholders even worse than now, and the well informed people the MSM created would have no reason to visit your blog.

    If you were serious, you’d be advocating for professional, mandated standards in journalism, like in medicine or law. But that wouldn’t be good for business either…

  4. Crutcher:

    The 4th estate has a significant role in a Constitutional Democracy — the 1st amendment gives them specific protections so as to have an informed electorate.

    Without the Press doing their job, Democracy fails.

    I really dont give the furry crack of a rat’s ass about corporate media profits if they fail to discharge their constitutional duty.


    On a personal note, your comment reflects a disappointing lack of understanding of the constitutional structure of the United States.

    epic fail

  5. crutcher says:

    Are you seriously doubling down on this?

    “1st amendment gives them specific protections so as to have an informed electorate.”

    How well is that 1st amendment working? You seem to agree that it isn’t.

    “I really dont give the furry crack of a rat’s ass about corporate media profits if they fail to discharge their constitutional duty.”

    Constitutional duty? You and who is holding FOX and MSNBC to that? That was the point of my comment which you didn’t address.

    You are – what – … a trained lawyer who, despite realizing that important provisions in the constitution are being ass-raped (I’m not American, the American constitution is not infallible to me) decided to fuck it and manage money on wall street. It’s a choice. I’m not even saying fail. Can we agree that democracy is failing partly because the media is failing?


    BR: Yes, that is a fair statement

    PS: If you want to avoid the spam filter, its best to steer clear of phrases such as ” ass-raped”

  6. [...] morning, I noted the errors that merely repeating surveys from PR firms combined with not understanding the cognitive errors inherent in these sorts of [...]

  7. Kevin P. says:

    Hang on a second. The press release about the Holiday Consumer Intentions and Actions Survey, dated Nov. 15, is here:

    That survey was conducted from Nov. 1-6. The news media appears to be quoting a different survey in which BIGinsight polled consumers over the weekend about what they actually did — how much they spent, how many stores they visited, etc. That press release is here:

    Sorry, Barry, but I think you’re all wet on this one.


    BR: I’m not sure what you are referring to — my post only references what the media wrote — not which press release they quoted/copied. The other NRF press releases refer to years 2005-2011.

    Can you clarify?

  8. [...] Ritholtz is doing a public service at his blog by exploding the myths behind the reported holiday retail sales. The numbers announced by various [...]

  9. Braden says:

    Re: Doing a post like this every year and circulating it to media observers.
    Yes, please! I’d also welcome other shame-rolls like this when the media jumps wholesale on a survey rather than data. It seems to happen all the time.
    Ritholtz is the TRUTH!

  10. bubbles says:

    Barry said “Without the Press doing their job, Democracy fails.”

    Barry’s correct. The fact is MSM hasn’t been doing their job for sometime and because of this the USA is no longer a Democracy, it’s really become a Plutocratic Corporatocracy.

  11. kilfarsnar says:

    Thanks for this post Barry, it is really eye-opening. Propaganda and media control are of particular interest to me and this post illustrates it nicely.

    I agree that the media’s first responsibility should be to truthfully inform to the best of their ability. But as we see here their role has become one of shaping public opinion. Reporters have largely become stenographers for corporate and government spokespeople. It’s to a point where it’s hard to know what to believe anymore. Just because something is reported doesn’t make it true. We all know this, but how many people watch the news with the awareness that they are being mislead?

    Anyway, thanks for another great post.

  12. CFD Trading says:

    What numbers can you trust these days! There is so much propaganda in the world. Probably more propaganda than real news!!

  13. BusSchDean says:

    Thanks, Barry! For people who like math: Business News Reporting ≠ Integrity in Reporting

  14. [...] always get lots of good feedback about this — so following my last post mocking Black Friday numbers, juts to show I’m no Scrooge, let’s kick off the Shopmas season with some ideas for [...]

  15. Biffah Bacon says:

    RE: crutcher et al on the media
    Can we think of a single episode in our history when the “news” wasn’t the product of a wealthy and interested party who desired certain results and disfavored others? Hearst, Luce, Murdoch-there is a thread there.
    I think we simply don’t have the diversity of media voices in old media and that is why blogs have become the new “News” for many people. Newspapers became milquetoast or extreme right; TV news was consolidated into a few networks owned by defense industrial companies, CIA front groups and an Aussie crank.
    I.F. Stone? Ramparts? Mencken? Murrow? Parry? Palast? Webb?

  16. Kevin P responds:

    “The post suggests that the media reports were based on forecasting, the results of a poll that asked consumers how much they thought they were going to spend in the near future. But that isn’t true. They were based on surveys conducted during Black Friday weekend, not 2 weeks beforehand. One of the questions was “How much did you spend on holiday shopping?” Note did spend not will spend.”


    The survey I am referencing is dated 11/23-24/2012 — that is the days after Thanksgiving, Fiday & Saturday. (You can see it here).

    The very 1st question of the survey is

    “Have you or will you go Holiday shopping this Thursday, Friday, Saturday or Sunday?”

    You are referring to something I neither mentioned nor referenced, and that is not the survey I was referencing.

  17. [...] year during the Black Friday weekend, and what they expected to spend this year. But as Ritholtz points out, “we know from both academic studies and experience that people are very bad at forecasting [...]

  18. [...] Black Friday’s Media Hall of Shame from Barry Ritholtz [...]

  19. [...] Black Friday’s Media Hall of Shame (November 28th, 2012) [...]