As a group, broadcast network journalists are incredibly adaptable. When their grim prophecies refuse to fulfill themselves, they persevere and find the clouds in the silver linings.
In the run-up to “Black Friday,” the unofficial start of the holiday shopping season, the media relentlessly built up the day’s significance as a barometer for the rest of the year while predicting “weakness,” “negative trends” and “gloom.”
The New York Times predicted “weak sales,” citing estimates of a 5-percent decline in sales from 2007. On CBS Thanksgiving Day, reporter Seth Doane warned that “89 percent of shoppers plan to spend the same or less than they did last year.”
When Black Friday turnout and sales beat expectations, journalists were unperturbed. They found grim explanations for the increased sales. And besides, they noted, a good Black Friday does not a successful holiday season make.
“But while crowds may have rivaled those of last year, discounts seem to be on everyone’s shopping list,” Michelle Miller said on CBS’s “The Early Show” Nov. 29. NBC’s Amy Robach said on the Nov. 30 “Nightly News” there was “reason for concern among retailers who fear those crowds were driven by deep discounts.”
In spite of the media’s negative expectations for Black Friday, American consumers shopped anyway. But even after being proved wrong, journalists couldn’t let go of the doom-and-gloom angle to report some much-needed good news about the economy. Instead, they spun the good news as bad.
Bleak Friday Forecasts
“It’s 9 a.m. on Black Friday. Tumbleweeds roll through the food court of a ghost-mall. At The Limited, a broken shutter slams in the dusty wind…”
No reporters actually said or wrote this, but the media clearly expected consumers to avoid the stores in droves. Armed with a National Retail Federation (NRF) survey estimating that 7 million fewer people planned to shop during the Thanksgiving weekend, they conjured an atmosphere of consumer dread.
“For the holiday season as a whole, retailing analysts expect weak sales,” The New York Times reported on Nov. 28. “Standard & Poor’s Equity Research is predicting a 5 percent decline, calling the holiday shopping season ‘the gloomiest in recent decades.’
“The National Retail Federation, which made one of the more optimistic predictions, said sales would increase 2.2 percent, well below the average 4.4 percent yearly increase retailers have enjoyed for the last decade.” The Times couldn’t resist this bit of editorializing: “The only real winners this season are bargain-hunters with money to spend.”
CBS “Evening News” reporter Seth Doane cited a survey Nov. 27 indicating that even if consumers did hit the malls, they wouldn’t be buying as usual. “Eighty-nine percent of shoppers plan to spend the same or less than they did last year,” he said. “Only 11 percent plan to spend more.” In case viewers didn’t get the gloomy picture, Doane tossed in this factoid: “…11 percent of shoppers have not yet paid off their holiday shopping debt from last year.”
Over at ABC “World News,” retail analyst Kate McShane gave reporter Gigi Stone her take Nov. 27. “Things aren’t very rosy for Black Friday. I think, you know, we’ve seen some pretty negative trends going into November,” McShane said.
Not to be outdone, Stone managed to cast a pall over even the sales that would be made. “Analysts do expect this year’s bigger sellers to be in home entertainment, because so many people are staying home to save money these days,” she said.
Cut to Black Friday itself. NBC “Today” co-host Amy Robach introduced a report Nov. 28 from Margaret Brennan. “It is the day retailers hope to move their balance sheets from red losses to black gains. But with the economy tanking, they won’t be seeing as much green in their cash registers this year.”
Brennan then recounted the measures retailers had been taking to draw in shoppers – bigger sales starting earlier in the season. “Stores have to make the most of what may be the weakest season in 20 years,” she said.
Pessimistic expectations for Black Friday were important, journalists insisted, because Black Friday traditionally serves as a bellwether for the rest of the holiday shopping season.
On Nov. 23, NBC “Nightly News” fill-in anchor Lester Holt called Black Friday “a giant barometer on the true state of the economy."
Two days later on Nov. 25, “Nightline” anchor Martin Bashir noted, “In a typical year, this three-day surge around the shops known as Black Friday weekend can account for up to 40 percent of retailers’ annual sales.”
On Nov. 27, The Washington Post characterized the next day as “the moment of truth for retailers in this unhappy holiday season…when retailers can ring up as much as half of their annual sales.” The same day, The Los Angeles Times stressed that, “A disappointing Black Friday would be a major blow to retailers that are counting on holiday sales to pull them out of a months-long sales slump. Analysts are predicting a spate of retail bankruptcy filings in January.”
No Good Number Goes Unspun
As it turned out, Black Friday was awfully bright for retailers – and consumers, who clearly weren’t feeling as hard-pressed as reporters made them out to be.
The NRF estimated that 172 million people shopped in stores or online over the weekend – 25 million more people than shopped during the same time in 2007. The average shopper spent more than $370 – 7 percent more than in 2007.
As Black Friday unfolded, reporters like NBC’s Brennen were acknowledging the huge consumer turnout, and working hard to find the dark side.
“At first glance, it looks like any Black Friday morning: aggressive bargain hunters buying before sunrise, crowded mall parking lots; even Santa Claus arrived right on time,” Brennan said on “Nightly News.” “But there’s a marked change across the nation this Black Friday. As recession fears abound, there’s a new consciousness of what it means to spend.”
The next morning, CBS “Early Show” reporter Michelle Miller was so anxious to put the right spin on events that she forgot the fundamental nature of Black Friday. “Judging from the Black Friday throngs, you might not know there’s a recession going on,” she said. “But while crowds may have rivaled those of last year, discounts seem to be on everyone’s shopping list.”
Apparently, in years past it was the crowds, the noise and the prospect of physical combat over the last “Tickle-Me Elmo” – not the deep discounts – that attracted Black Friday shoppers.
During ABC’s “Good Morning America Saturday,” Gigi Stone dutifully noted the good news before getting to the point. “Early reports from Macy’s, Best Buy and KB Toys are that Friday’s crowds were similar in size to last year’s,” she said. “But more important to retailers is how much they’re buying, and at what price.”
“They’re marking everything down across the board,” said retail analyst Lori Wachs, “which is a pretty disastrous scenario for the retailers. But it’s a paradise for the consumers.”
And the media retail disaster rolled on, impervious to the good news. "But despite what may prove to be a good start, there is reason for concern among retailers who fear those crowds were driven by deep discounts,” said Amy Robach on NBC "Nightly News" Nov. 30. “In addition, more of those shoppers surveyed said they are already close to finishing their holiday shopping this year.”
The next evening her colleague Maria Bartiromo hit that note again. “The crowds thinned out as the weekend progressed, suggesting shoppers were drawn by deep discounts, which may not help retailers’ bottom lines,” Bartiromo said Dec. 1.
She turned to NRF spokesman Scott Krugman, who obliged by downplaying Friday’s figures: “While it’s great that Black Friday started off strong, you want to see that, it’s not an indicator about how well the rest of the holiday season will do.”
That’s a starkly different message than the media were presenting before Black Friday, when they characterized the day as a “giant barometer” and a “moment of truth” for the holiday shopping season.
At the same time on CBS, Michelle Miller assured Katie Couric that retail’s hard times weren’t over. “Most experts say the Thanksgiving holiday bounce did little to recoup the reduced consumer spending so far this year,” she said. “And, Katie, to make matters worse, there are five fewer shopping days than usual between now and Christmas.”