Lies, damned lies and Black Friday sales

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(MoneyWatch) As with all holiday activities, Black Friday has its time-honored traditions: Freezing consumers standing in line for hours to get a bargain, shopper fisticuffs, stampeded store employees. And, as business experts have long known, retailers making up sales figures.

Sometime during the Black Friday weekend -- which was once exclusively known as Thanksgiving -- media reports are likely to describe sales figures for the period as either strong or even a "record." Here's how the Associated Press described it last year:

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.

That's not to knock the AP, a reputable wire service. Other media outlets also echoed the NRF, the industry's leading trade group, which claimed that "total spending over the four-day weekend following Thanksgiving reached a record $52.4 billion, up 16 percent from $45 billion last year."

The problem: The NRF's statistics are notoriously unreliable, usually in service of painting a bullish, or at least, improving picture of retail sales. As financial pundit Barry Ritholtz wrote last year:

No, retail sales did not climb 16 percent. Surveys where people forecast their own future spending are, as we have seen repeatedly in the past, pretty much worthless. We actually have no idea just yet as to whether, and exactly how much, sales climbed. The data simply is not in yet. The most you can accurately say is according to some foot traffic measurements, more people appeared to be in stores on Black Friday 2011 than in 2010.

After Black Friday last year, the trade group issued a news release with the headline: "Buoyed By Strong Black Friday Weekend, November Retail Sales Rise 4.5 Percent, According To NRF." The U.S. Commerce Department released its own figures shortly thereafter reporting that retail sales had increased only 0.2 percent for the month.

Critics contend that the NRF and other business groups commonly overestimate sales and other indicators of commercial activity to spur consumer spending. If you believe others are spending heavily, the argument goes, then you will set aside your own beliefs about the condition of the economy and do the same.

Another reason to take Black Friday sales data with a grain of salt: It doesn't tell you much about the state of the economy, according to experts. As U.K. research firm Capitol Economics said in a recent report, "We would warn against reading too much into the performance of retail sales on Black Friday, as there is little evidence that it will set the tone for sales during the whole holiday season."

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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, TheStreet.com, CSO, and Boston Magazine.