Selling Black Friday: Slanted Stats and Fuzzy Math

Posted by Michael Neubarth
Michael Neubarth
Michael Neubarth is Vice President of Marketing for and founder and Director of eMatrix Media Comm...
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on Monday, 28 November 2011 in Research

The media has been breathlessly trumpeting record Black Friday sales as a welcome indicator of economic well-being.

“Shopping’s Hot Again, Holiday Sales Soar,” said the Plain Dealer.  “Black Friday sales hit record, giving season hope,” said MarketWatch. 

But hold on...

According to economics expert Barry Ritholtz, the two surveys on which these reports are based, and the media’s echoing their story lines, is an annual rite of deception.  

“Every year around this time,” says Ritholtz, ”we get a series of loose reports coincident with Black Friday and the holiday weekend. Each year, they are wildly optimistic. And like clockwork, the media idiotically repeats these trade organizations spin like its gospel.” 

Ritholtz, who is CEO of FusionIQ  and a regular contributor to The, The Washington Post, CNBC, Kudlow & Company, Bloomberg, PBS, and many other news outlets, has been tracking and discrediting the Black Friday survey numbers for years.

He argues that the National Retail Federation (NRF) and ShopperTrak reports are based on shopper questionnaires and measurements of store traffic, and that these methodologies do not yield accurate results. The real sales data, he says, has yet to be tallied.

“When the data finally comes in,” says Rithollz, “we learn that the early reports were pure hokum, put out by trade groups to create shopping hype.”

Ritholtz dismisses the NRF’s questionnaire survey technique, arguing that, “Surveys in which people forecast their own future spending are, as we have seen repeatedly in the past, pretty much worthless.”

Also unreliable, he says, is the ShopperTrak system, which uses equipment to measure store traffic. This is a very poor system for forecasting actual sales, says Ritholz, because it “does not measure changes in window shoppers vs. buyers from year to year, how much money and/or credit people have, how large their holiday budgets are, or how much they are willing to spend.”

The fact that NRF and ShopperTrak data vary so widely means that at least one of their methodologies is suspect, says Ritholtz, adding that, “In my opinion, both are mostly meaningless.”

More reliable data will come from sources like Master Card’s SpendingPulse and ComScore data, says Ritholtz, which track actual retail sales.

So let’s see what those numbers say and how they compare to the jubilant reports we have been receiving.


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Michael Neubarth is Vice President of Marketing for and founder and Director of eMatrix Media Communications. Michael has a comprehensive marketing, communications, PR, analytical, and editorial background, including strategic marketing, communications, and market intelligence roles at IBM, FatWire Software, and Brodeur Worldwide, and as an analyst at Meta Group covering advanced technologies. His experience includes roles as editor-in-chief of Internet World, NetGuide, and Windows magazines, and expert contributor to Michael is a well-known writer on information technology, digital marketing, and social media issues, and his articles and blogs are cited widely online.


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