Maven: The Banality of 'Black Friday'

The media continues to give the day after Thanksgiving far too much importance.
Author:
Publish date:

A liver regenerates ... and so does the misleading media coverage of the holiday shopping season. The Business Press Maven made easy work of the predictable way the woeful coverage played out during last holiday shopping season. But let's sum up and then look at how, in one newspaper, two articles appeared this week that say very different things about what investors can look for this year.

One took investors down the same old road; the other began to the process of pointing toward what is actually beginning to take place. They used a basic number differently.

First, let's try to force a serene smile as we review the old story line. For too long now, the retail industry has termed the day after Thanksgiving "Black Friday," because it is purportedly the day they (cross your fingers, hope to die) begin putting their books in the black.

The business media dutifully rounds up the low-totem pole reporters, those who have to bust their buns on holiday weekends but don't have much experience, and sends them out to malls. There, they too often use any line they run across as anecdotal evidence of widespread demand and if -- God willing -- some sort of pushing and shoving, especially during one of those midnight lines, breaks out, they write up the story as if holiday sales are going to be up by double digits.

Here's a fairly typical lead, minus the fisticuffs,

from CNNMoney.com:

"Bargain-hungry shoppers raced to malls as early as midnight to be the first in line to grab the best of retailers' so-called 'doorbuster deals' on Black Friday, the kickoff of the 2006 holiday shopping season. Impatient shoppers were chanting 'Open the door!' shortly before a 5 am opening at a Wal-Mart store in Union, N.J."

On television, so visually based, the cash register's ca-chinging and receipts and shopping bags flying, automatically give any investor unfortunate enough to be watching the subliminal message that

it's a great selling season.

For good measure, this thin report even quotes an analyst pontificating that holiday spending is "not discretionary." Sure: if you don't buy something for your wife, you are a dead man. But the amount people buy, and the price level of what they are buying, is what investors need to key in on.

If sales are then reported to be a bit tepid -- or discounts used to bring shoppers appear to be hurting profits -- investors in recent years have faced post-"Black Friday" coverage that compounds the confusion. Hope is first held out for a bounty of sales on the so-called "Cyber Monday," when everyone supposedly goes back to work after Thanksgiving, but spends the whole time shopping. On Friday,

The New York Times even ran a reader forum on the front page of its website, asking the question: "There's Black Friday and now 'Cyber-Monday' for online retailers. How do you prefer to shop for your gifts?"

Only two choices? Most of the media, after Cyber-Monday, starts focusing, in rapid succession, on a long series of defining days, like "Super Saturday" and "Last-Minute Friday."

What is the answer?

The New York Post

ran one story, just about

all the people in line. (An

Associated Press

story run by

The Post

included the story of a sisterly argument over who was first and who cut in line.)

All these sorts of articles receive The Business Press Maven's dreaded "Back of the Hand" award. But garnering The Business Press Maven's coveted "Nod of Approval" award for no other reason than the fact that the others were so bad is

another article in

The New York Post.

In a small amount of space, it points out the increased irrelevancy of "Black Friday" as a barometer of anything for investors and, by extension, the start of any story line about holiday sales.

The article quoted numbers that only a third of customers said they planned to shop on Black Friday, down from nearly 45% only four years ago.

The first

Post

article -- the lame one? It only mentioned that a third of shoppers would shop that day. It did not step on the excitement by pointing out that the number had seriously dwindled in short-order.

Moreover, the good article noted what the bad one did not: how many sales started a week ago.

And though the good article does not say so, sales have stretched further and further toward Christmas, as online sales have grown in prominence.

In the end, of course, all it means is this: Investors should never take the bait, as each of these tidily named days rolls around, to think that any one of them means anything.

With gas prices down, the economy in a sweet spot of not-too-hot-not-too-slow growth and the stock market strong, we are going to have a good (but not spectacular, by any means) holiday season. And even though the same sort of coverage keeps popping up like a bad penny, you need to think for yourself. With the Internet, international business and the busy nature of people's lives, the shopping season is six weeks long. Goodness knows and so now do Business Press Maven readers that no single day has more than a feather's touch of influence anymore.

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.