As Sunday night rolled into Monday morning, investors have been treated to post-mortems on the holiday shopping weekend. While
The Wall Street Journal
declared in a headline this morning "
offered this take: "Holiday shopping season off to modest start."
So which headline paints an accurate portrait of the weekend's retail results?
Neither, at least according to a headline in
The New York Times
. The Gray Lady told us that while the long weekend -- which begins on the "Black Friday" following Thanksgiving Day and launches the holiday shopping season -- might have looked surprisingly strong, it was actually an illusion: "
So considering these views and
remark that "like an unexpected present under the Christmas tree, retailers received a pleasant surprise from shoppers on this bellwether weekend," where should savvy investors turn for an accurate viewpoint? And why all of the confusion?
Well, first off -- because many in the business media focused on the tragic story of a Wal-Mart employee who was trampled and killed by a crowd of zealous shoppers, few reports included the four elements of the holiday shopping weekend that investors need to weigh.
They Just Don't Get Retail!
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If you are not getting these four elements in your holiday shopping coverage, do the right thing: crumple the coverage and throw it onto the Yule log. Weighing these four factors (two positive, two negative) reveals that the holiday selling season showed some needed signs of life but overall was fairly typical of a recessionary period. Given the degree of panic in the business media about the coming Great Depression II, this passes, overall, as good news.
Few articles are mentioning a basic factor that puts this year's numbers in an even more favorable light. Namely, last year's Thanksgiving weekend was strong from a sales perspective. What's the significance here and why does it have to be factored in to any post-mortems this year? Plain and simple: it means this year was up against tough comparisons.
Yet despite all the economic challenges and associated fuss and hand-wringing, sales this year, despite limitations looked good. That's pretty remarkable.
Check out this pithy summary of
. Every article about this year's results should include something like what the
stated in its 2007 coverage:
"Sales rose 8.3 percent on Friday compared with last year, the biggest increase in three years, according to ShopperTrak, a research company. On Friday and Saturday combined, sales rose 7.2 percent."
Few articles have mentioned what a departure this year has been in terms of the pace at which stores like
Abercrombie & Fitch
and more have run sales. It is normal during slower years of economic growth that as the holiday season grinds on from a meek Thanksgiving weekend start, desperation discounting creeps in as a reaction to the dearth of business. But two things are at play here, and both should be mentioned.
For one, the Christmas shopping season has been starting earlier and earlier over the years. Its traditional Black Friday start is much more fluid. This means that any sign of good performance on Friday is better than billed. People have already been gift shopping for weeks beforehand.
Moreover, this year -- because retailers were scared out of their wits by the credit crisis -- heavy discounting started earlier than ever. Discounting in 2008 is an act of anticipation, not reaction. No one was willing to wait for a tepid start to begin their discounting. They began cutting prices early and often. This, once more, makes the Thanksgiving weekend performance somewhat better than it appeared. After weeks of discount shopping, shoppers still have some shopping juice remaining.
Or do they? Any report on the holiday shopping weekend must not present the weekend as a single day. The important question is: Did sales results and foot traffic stay strong or taper off markedly as we progressed (or regressed) from Thursday to Sunday? Too many articles portray the weekend as a single entity, but
The New York Times
did a good job here:
"Also, after shoppers flooded stores on Friday, foot traffic trailed off significantly on Saturday and Sunday."
also rightly remarked on the profit issue. The traffic results have to take into account profits. We are playing an expectations game in investing, and expectations have been so low and panicked that any signs of life as it pertains to the health of the consumer, is overall, welcome news indeed.
At the time of publication, Fuchs had no positions in any of the stocks mentioned in this column.
Marek Fuchs was a stockbroker for Shearson Lehman Brothers and a money manager before becoming a journalist who wrote The New York Times' "County Lines" column for six years. He also did back-up beat coverage of The New York Knicks for the paper's Sports section for two seasons and covered other professional and collegiate sports. He has contributed frequently to many of the Times' other sections, including National, Metro, Escapes, Style, Real Estate, Arts & Leisure, Travel, Money & Business, Circuits and the Op-Ed Page. For his "Business Press Maven? column on how business and finance are covered by the media, Fuchs was named best business journalist critic in the nation by the Talking Biz website at The University of North Carolina School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Fuchs is a frequent speaker on the business media, in venues ranging from National Public Radio to the annual conference of the Society of American Business Editors and Writers. Fuchs appreciates your feedback;
to send him an email.