Lies, damned lies and Black Friday sales statistics

U.S. retail sales were worse than expected last month despite what we were told was a "record" Black Friday. This is just more proof of why you should never, ever pay attention to Black Friday sales figures.

While November's retail sales did increase by 0.2 percent, that was the lowest increase in the past five months and well short of 0.6 percent increase economists had been expecting.

The great Black Friday shopping rush has become an essential part of Thanksgiving weekend. Even people who don't risk the hand-to-hand combat of going to the stores that day take an interest in stories about the customer craziness. Reports of the sales figures turn it into kind of a sporting event: Up 7 percent! Now it's up by 10!

Here's what the AP reported on the Monday after the "Big Weekend":

A record 226 million shoppers visited stores and websites during the four-day holiday weekend starting on Thursday, the Thanksgiving Day holiday, up from 212 million last year, according to early estimates by the National Retail Federation released on Sunday. Americans spent more, too: The average holiday shopper spent $398.62 over the weekend, up from $365.34 a year ago.

(This is nothing new. Here's what they reported last year about it.)

Pretty much anytime you see that the statistics come from the National Retail Federation you should stop reading. While the Commerce Department reported the 0.2 percent increase today, here's what the NRF reported: "Buoyed By Strong Black Friday Weekend, November Retail Sales Rise 4.5 Percent, According To NRF." The NRF has a powerful vested interest in making it seem like a good shopping weekend. The organization thinks this will encourage others to go shopping.

Black Friday and its companion Cyber Monday are the recipients of some of the best PR work going. The myth is that they are the biggest shopping days of the season. This is proof reporters have never worked retail. The busiest in-person shopping day of the season is always the weekend before the Christmas. Always. The busiest online shopping days come right around those days when you can order something and still get it delivered before the holiday without paying through the nose for the privilege. 

So what to make of all those stories about Black Friday shopping madness? The wonderful blogger (and Wall Street money manager) Barry Ritholtz puts it this way:

We are left to ponder what those folks who were lining up late at night at Wal-Mart and Best Buy for bargains were doing. No, it was not a sign of "shopping enthusiasm," it was a sign of extreme economic distress. No one who can afford otherwise goes out Thanksgiving night to stand in the cold with a crowd, to fight the stampeding, pepper-spraying mob for a discounted X Box.

And to all, a good night.

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    Constantine von Hoffman is a freelance writer and writing coach. His work has appeared in outlets such as Harvard Business Review, NPR, Sierra magazine, Brandweek, CIO, The Boston Herald,, CSO, and Boston Magazine.