Mark posted on Boing-Boing last year this article on Fake News that I wrote, which examined the retail numbers cited by the National Retail Federation about sales over Thanksgiving, and so-called Black Friday. I made the point that this news is fake news, coming from a press release generated by a retail trade organization and then spoon-fed to us by uncritical reporters. While the stories credit the source, the headlines give the impression that the retail industry wants, using numbers they provide. (Reporters like a story with specific numbers, no matter how contrived they are. Independent backup for the numbers is never provided.) There's every reason for NRF to present numbers that favor their view that consumers will be buying more. It's like asking the fox to count the eggs in the hen house and report on the health of the chickens.
This is the post-Thanksgiving weekend story last year, written almost whole-cloth from the NRF press release.
Blockbuster Black Friday Weekend
Sees Sales Near $28 Billion
145 Million Shoppers Hit Stores and Internet, Up From 133 Million in '04
Washington, DC, November 27, 2005–The ceremonial kickoff to the holiday season began with a great deal of fanfare as 145 million shoppers flooded stores and the Internet hunting for popular electronics, clothing, and books. An NRF survey conducted by BIGresearch found that the average shopper spent $302.81 this weekend, bringing total weekend spending to $27.8 billion, an incredible 21.9 percent increase over last year's $22.8 billion.
A year later, the retail outlook is a little different with a little less fanfare. I wondered what the NRF website was saying in advance of Black Friday. Do they still want you to believe more people are going to come out and buy? The answer is "yes, but." Instead of "more than last year," the idea is "more than you think."
Here's the pre-Thanksgiving press release, which prepares us for a "big surprise", saying the Black Friday will have a silver lining.
Washington, November 25, 2008 – As retailers prepare to open their doors at the crack of dawn this Friday, many could be in for a welcome surprise. According to a preliminary Black Friday shopping survey conducted by BIGresearch for the National Retail Federation, up to 128 million people will shop this Friday, Saturday or Sunday. According to the survey, 49 million people will definitely hit the stores while another 79 million are waiting to see the weekend deals before making any decisions. This number is down slightly from the 135 million people who said they would or may shop over Black Friday weekend last year.
I went to Google News, typed in "Black Friday Silver Lining" and a CNNMoney story popped up. A cut-and-paste specialist, I mean, reporter, Julianne Pepitone made this story for CNN:
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) — Black Friday shopping is expected to decline slightly, but pent-up demand and lower gas prices may provide a small silver lining for the suffering retail industry, according to a survey released Tuesday.
Up to 128 million people said they will shop on the Friday, Saturday, or Sunday after Thanksgiving, down from 135 million the previous year, according to a survey by National Retail Federation (NRF).
Seriously, CNN should just cite NRF as the author of the story.
Now, look at last year's story which cited 145 million shoppers. This year the number for last year is down to 135 million, which means they overestimated last year by ten million or this revised number allowed them to say that numbers would be "down slightly" when comparing it their equally fictional 128 million for this year.
Here's my favorite part of the fairly literal PR-to-news translation:
In fact, a full 49 million people said they would "definitely" head to stores, while 79 million said they would decide after seeing the weekend deals.
Imagine asking that many "full" people, "in fact", people full from Thanksgiving, saying "definitely." If this were an election story, and you had this kind of poll data, you wouldn't write that "up to 128 million" had made up their mind to vote. You'd write that two-thirds were undecided.