A Pessimistic Look at Holiday Sales

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Most evaluations of holiday sales so far have been positive. Black Friday weekend brought record numbers of shoppers into stores, according to groups such as the National Retail Federation (NRF). Research firm Comscore claims that e-commerce sales reached record levels. However, many estimates of how well retailers have done during the holidays do not match one another. And some are very pessimistic, which raises the question of whether holiday sales were really strong at all.

New data from Gallup shows:

Self-reported U.S. consumer spending in stores, restaurants, gas stations, and online averaged $67 per day in the week ending Nov. 25, including Black Friday weekend. This is down from $83 a year ago and the $79 comparable for 2010, and essentially matches the 2009 weekly comparable of $69.

By Gallup’s measure, spending was not much better than at the bottom of the recession.

The difference between Gallup and much of the balance of the research on holiday activity is that it is “self-reported.” Data from institutions like the NRF are based on outside evaluations of foot traffic and spending measured though evaluations not based on the consumer’s own responses. It could be argued that the difference makes the Gallup data more accurate, because it comes from the consumer’s own mouth.

If Gallup is right, trouble like the fiscal cliff, the lingering effects of the recession and lack of growth in real income continue to pull down consumer spending and consumer confidence. That picture makes more sense than one that shows the consumer suddenly being overcome by a new level of exuberance about his fate.

Gallup’s data, if it is right, means that when experts look back at this holiday season, they will see more carnage than expected.

Methodology: Results are based on telephone interviews conducted as part of Gallup Daily tracking and reported on a weekly basis for 2011 and 2012, with random samples of more than 2,000 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.

Douglas A. McIntyre

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