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Pointing Out Ho-Ho-Holes in the Holiday Retail Story

Don't let the business media fool you into thinking one shopping day can define the whole season.

Make sure your wig is clipped firmly to your head today, because we are going to examine how even when the business media, speaking in its customary voice of unison, is correct, they manage to set themselves up to be wrong. Pay attention. This is central to understanding the coming holiday shopping period.

Like it was mandated from a central regulator, the business media has been busy this week pointing out how early the Christmas season has started for retailers.

CNNMoney.com

,

The New York Times

,

Reuters

and many more have run stories about how retailers have been cutting prices on toys, decorating their stores or taking more low-key subliminal approaches but pushing holiday sales just the same.

And it is all true, every word of it: Moving the Christmas shopping season early and often has been a long unfolding trend. Before too long, The Business Press Maven is (elbow tap to the ribs) almost certain, the Christmas shopping season will eventually start on the Friday after Thanksgiving again ... of the previous year.

Speaking of Black Friday, you know what is coming again, right? And how anyone with a morsel of common sense will unclip their wig and stuff it into their ears so they can't hear all the misleading clatter, right?

Because even though the business media knows that the Christmas shopping season has been stretched wider than Bolivia, it is -- you watch -- going to obsess on key shopping days, which they say are going to define the Christmas season.

Keep an eye on them, as they will all but make up new ones as they go along (see Cyber Monday, the purported online shopping equivalent of Black Friday). It makes good copy and, besides, it's business media tradition. Just pull out those old articles templates and plug in new numbers and quotes.

But with a Christmas season effectively lasting months, any individual day (especially the made-up ones) have a lesser impact. So assuming a meaningful impact misleads investors.

We saw this last year, remember? The Business Press Maven predicted a decent Christmas shopping season, and as each cutely named all defining day -- from Black Friday to Last-Minute Thursday to the totally ridiculous Cyber Monday -- passed with apparent disappointment, readers emailed me to crow about how wrong I had been.

But with the Christmas season stretched longer, these defined days (even the real ones) are increasingly irrelevant and surely not all defining. Anyhow, once we knew how the entire season went, I had to dance a

celebratory gavotte on the graves of all those misperceptions.

Let's not make the same mistake as we go forward into the Christmas shopping season. Believe the consensus you are currently reading about how holiday shopping starts earlier. But realize that this excludes the possibility that any day in late November or early December holds the key to the season.

And, please, if a shopping day sounds like it's made up from whole cloth by some fathead at a keyboard, rest assured that it is.

Now keep your hand on that wig for two very brief tirades. The Business Press Maven has said it before: anything written about the direction of

Starbucks

(SBUX) - Get Report

has to be seen through the lens of the

Valentine's Day Massacre Memo written by Howard Schultz, their brilliant leader, about how the company has lost its way.

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The company tried to downplay the leaked memo, but I made clear that what we might have is a pure admission of trouble and anything that the company did or didn't do in the future must be set against that memo.

It is incredible that the business media, with a memory no better than a California fruit fly's, is still speculating about Starbucks without grounding their thought by harnessing it to the memo. Look at

The Financial Times

from just the other day:

Also, we've spoken before about the business media, unlike normal society, operates under the assumption that when there is a

what

(like a 50 point move in a stock market priced at over 14,000) there always must be a

why

. It leads to a lot of wasted talk and forced (mis)perceptions, but when the

what

(

Google

(GOOG) - Get Report

hitting 600) is essentially a randomly selected benchmark, did you notice how the

why's

are more all over the place than usual?

Now two brief announcements. It is fire protection week: Have you checked the batteries in your smoke alarms? Do you even have enough smoke alarms? Please take the time to check. Also, for readers in Tar Heel country, I will be speaking at the fall meeting of the Society of American Business Editors and Writers on Saturday, Oct. 20 at 2 p.m. at the University of North Carolina School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

Since my alter ego -- the mild-mannered reporter Marek Fuchs -- does sports coverage, I've been asked to speak on a panel with Hubert Davis, former Tar Heel basketball player and New York Knick and current sportscaster for ESPN. Davis will be speaking on sports journalism; I'll be speaking on the comparative strengths and weaknesses of sports and business journalism.

We'll be taking questions together and then I will be challenging Davis to a three-point shooting contest in the Tar Heel gym for some heavy change that may tip the scales at upward of a dollar. Wish me luck. And if you end up going, please come up and say hi. At other speeches and book readings, it's been a pleasure to meet some of you and attach faces to email addresses. But I'm not going to be friendly unless you've checked those batteries.

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;

click here

to send him an email.