The prolific nonsense that passes for the traditional reporting on how the lines and sales of Black Friday signify shopping demand and profits misleads investors in any normal year, but this year's adds a new and financially dangerous wrinkle. Here's why: For obvious reasons, we face a challenging holiday season. Yet the unbridled excitement of Black Friday coverage -- think advocacy journalism for the retail sector -- makes positive results seem preordained. Again, that's one thing in years that are positive anyway. But it's quite another thing in challenging years.
New York Daily News
had a typical effort, creating yet another self-styled shopping day in portraying Americans as poised to jump up from their Thanksgiving table to shop until they drop. Here is the headline: "
'Gray Thursday'? Some retailers just won't wait till Black Friday
Gray Thursday? God save us all.
That article, which ran the morning of Thanksgiving, served merely as a hyperventilating curtain opener about how stores would be open and thousands upon thousands would be forgoing their turkey and relatives with personality disorders to shop. Are Americans really going to skip the family table on Thanksgiving to shop? Or is this Gray Thursday another figment of the media's hyperactive imagination? A clever phrase in search of a headline.
Perhaps you thought the follow-up reporting of this so-called "Gray Thursday" would be calmer. You didn't really think that, did you?
headline for today: "Sales and warm weather lot like heaven to folks pulling out plastic early."
Heaven? That's a dangerous word to use in reference to the current economy. Does the lead offer better perspective? A coming off of the Gray Friday claim? Not quite. Here it is: "And they're off!"
The Business Press Maven needs a new set of bath towels to dry the tears I cry for the coverage throughout this season. But to mention the excitement about flat-screen sales and lines ... without mentioning potential lack of underlying profits? Well, look here. It's an
exact replay of last year.
Following coverage that became my daily nightmare about how the lines for flat-screens were so long so it must be the season's hot item, investors had a 62" plasma fall on their toes after the holidays.
announced weaker-than-expected results. Circuit City, it bears mentioning, was even offering a 30-day price guarantee, which meant that there were a lot of lively, thankful shoppers to interview in line ... but the "heaven" which involves companies or investors making one thin dime off of those shoppers did not exist.
And lest you think I'm picking on the
New York Daily News
, this coverage is even more prevalent, as always, on television where the video visuals of predawn shopping lines play well. (I haven't seen one yet of someone throwing down their wishbone and napkin, kicking back their chair and running to the mall ... and looking.)
But just to show you how common and misleading this all is, let's go from one New York tabloid to the other, where you'll find exactly the same thing at
The New York Post
."The article actually began with a tell-tale sound: "Ka-ching." In case you didn't get it, then came the explanation:
That's the sound heard around the city and the nation today as millions of Americans arise early from their turkey-induced stupor to shop, shop, shop. Shoppers lined up outside store doors before dawn on a chilly morning, raced through aisles with extensive shopping lists and strategized to get in as much shopping as possible in the early going. "If they were selling it, we were buying it," Tom Shea, 23, said as he surveyed his purchases at a midtown Manhattan Best Buy store. He said he, some friends and a cousin were the first through the doors when the store opened at 4 a.m.
Anyhow, we've now had discounting throughout November. So Gray Thursday. Black Friday. Plus, the Cyber Monday we are careening toward plus a whole bunch of self-styled other days have limited meaning. But the reporting has a lot. And when reporters flap their gums about anecdotal lines and talk about sales as if they mean profits, there is a bigger downside than ever for the unsuspecting investor. Beware. And be aware.
To view a video of Marek Fuchs discussing this column -- from the comfort of his car -- click here
At the time of publication, Fuchs had no positions in any of the stocks mentioned in this column.
A journalist with a background on Wall Street, Marek Fuchs has written the County Lines column for The New York Times for the past five years. He also contributes regular breaking news and feature stories to many of the paper's other sections, including Metro, National and Sports. Fuchs was the editor-in-chief of Fertilemind.net, a financial Web site twice named "Best of the Web" by Forbes Magazine. He was also a stockbroker with Shearson Lehman Brothers in Manhattan and a money manager. He is currently writing a chapter for a book coming out in early 2007 on a really embarrassing subject. He lives in a loud house with three children. Fuchs appreciates your feedback;
to send him an email.