By Kelli B. Grant November 23, 2012
It’s a safe bet to say that people are shopping over Black Friday weekend. However, it’s a little harder to say with certainty how many shoppers are buying what, where, and for how much. Reports often give conflicting information.
The same is true for estimates about holiday shopping. Earlier this fall, a USA Today piece examined four holiday forecasts that projected sales increases ranging from 3.0% to 4.1%.
Reporters covering holiday shopping trends should do some window-shopping of their own before deciding which data to include in their stories. A little research can help you avoid over- or underplaying trends that could influence how your audience spends its money or invests it.
There is wide variety of useful sources of holiday spending and sales data, depending on what you’re looking for:
Here are some tips to help you assess which sources might work best for your story.
Review the methodology
Industry groups, companies and analysts track spending and sales in different ways. Those holiday forecasts USA Today cited all agreed that the rate of sales increase would be slower than last year, but they varied in which months were included in the holiday season and which kinds of purchases were tracked. Data from investment analysts may include only the public companies they cover. Those details are important to consider when deciding whether to cite a particular study. They can also be a good gut check when a study or survey seems to buck what other sources have said. Convey relevant details to readers to put the study in perspective.
Point out conflict
Consumer Reports expects fewer Black Friday shoppers this year than last; Accenture expects more. Conflicting data sources aren’t necessarily a problem, but it is important to have reliable, third-party sources vet the studies, so you know which is best for your story. Note that there are detractors, too. It’s a service to your audience to point out when the more widely held opinion isn’t universal.
Investigate the marketing hype
As Black Friday sales have crept into the weeks before and after Thanksgiving, marketers and retailers have been fast to name new “holidays.” Cyber Monday. Green Tuesday. Sofa Sunday. Talk to industry analysts or experts from sale aggregators to see if there are enough quality promotions to warrant mentioning those days by name. Some experts are still skeptical that Cyber Monday is a real sales trend.
There are also plenty of experts trying to convince reporters that data show a trend related to their expertise — say, that online fraud is a big risk for Cyber Monday, or that everyone is buying gifts via smartphone. Don’t hang a story on one source’s opinion without talking to other experts to see if it holds up.
Consider the survey sample
When an online sale-tracking site surveys its members and finds a high percentage plan to buy more online than in stores, it’s hardly a surprise. Look for neutral sources that draw on a wide sample group.
Don’t write off those selective samples altogether. Niche sources can and do find interesting trends among their audiences. That data just isn’t the right fit for a story about the broader shopping population.
Look at the source’s track record
If the sales or spending data you’re looking at is an annual projection, look back to see what that source expected in previous years. How well did their projection match up with tallies at the end of the holiday season? A source that’s consistently off base should be avoided. If it’s the only source – or if it’s more reliable than the alternatives – tell your audience that their estimates have been off the mark.
Kelli B. Grant is the senior consumer reporter at MarketWatch.com and a contributor to The Wall Street Journal. She has written about personal finance for publications including Real Simple, Good Housekeeping and Family Circle.
This entry was posted on Friday, November 23rd, 2012 at 4:11 am. It is filed under On the Beat and tagged with black friday, consumer, Data, holiday shopping, retail. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.
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