Now that Christmas shopping is no longer at our throats, it's time for another annual rite. This is the season in which journalists pore over retailers' receipts, interview a few wise people and reflect on What It All Meant.
Here's what it all meant, this season and every one before it: almost nothing.
According to this time-honored media cliche, we aren't just what we buy, but how much we spend while buying. Reading the sales tape and talking to so-called experts, reporters tend to jump to one of two grandiose conclusions: The economy is just super dandy perky, thank you, or -- more likely -- we're all doomed.
You could pick up almost any newspaper or watch any TV news program and see something similar to what the New York Times reported in a Dec. 27 front-page article: "After examining sales figures from the last frenzied hours before Christmas, experts yesterday declared this year's holiday season the worst in many years . . . Worry about the economy and about an impending war with Iraq and new terrorist attacks kept many shoppers from buying, even with deep discounts on many items."
The worst in many years? By what measurement? And more important: How would anyone know for sure?
Consider this fact: Total retail sales in the United States have increased every month, with one exception, for the past 11 years, according to the U.S. Commerce Department's seasonally adjusted data. That's 130 months of rising sales (compared to the same month a year earlier) vs. one month of declining sales (October). I'll give 130-1 odds that December was yet another "up" month.
But surely, you say, holiday sales give us some idea of how the overall economy is doing, right? Wrong. It's true that the economy has been relatively robust for some time, but the arrow hasn't been pointing straight up for all those 11 years. Indeed, during the period when retail sales have been climbing, the quarterly gross domestic product has declined four times.
So much for the shopping-as-bellwether angle.
What these stories rarely note is that consumer spending typically is pretty stable, even in a recession. Thanks to population growth and inflation, personal consumption tends to rise even when the economy is just treading water. When a recession hits, it's not because Wal-Mart had a lousy Christmas; it's usually because of a decline in business investment and profits, and a deterioration of the trade balance.
These reports from shopping's front lines may tell us something about how an individual chain is performing -- Wal-Mart is down, Kmart is up -- but they don't say much of anything about the economy at large, or about consumer behavior. They certainly say nothing about whether the retail industry is making a profit.
In fact, holiday shopping stories don't even accurately measure holiday shopping. Why? Because they are based on the most scant and superficial evidence, and they rely on experts who can't possibly see the big picture they're purporting to describe.
The retail economy is so vast and so complex that comprehending it all at once would require superhuman vision. It consists not merely of Wal-Mart, Kmart, Sears, the Gap, Circuit City, Hecht's, Macy's and a few dozen other big mall inhabitants -- the usual sources for December shopping stories -- but hundreds of thousands of other sellers, big and small.
The Commerce Department's monthly retail report includes the following kinds of stores, each representing billions of dollars in sales: motor vehicle and auto parts; furniture and home furnishings; building material/garden supplies; sporting goods; books and music, health and personal care items; clothing and accessories; food and beverage; gasoline stations; electronics and appliances; food service and bars; and, yes, the traditional department stores.
But even that doesn't cover the field. As wide-ranging as its survey is, the government says its respondents account for only about two-thirds of retail activity.
In other words, every newspaper or TV report about Christmas shopping proceeds from suspect origins. Even the most diligent reporter couldn't capture the direction or amount -- up 2.4 percent? down 6.9 percent? -- let alone the totality of what's going on out there in Shopping Land during those "frantic weeks" between Thanksgiving and the post-Christmas returns. The most accurate estimate doesn't arrive until the middle of January, when the Commerce survey is released -- by which time, of course, no one in the media really cares any more.
In the meantime, the media fall for the same old game. Big retailers make gloomy holiday forecasts -- no point in raising Wall Street's expectations! -- which reporters dutifully turn into dark headlines. (I'm waiting for the headline that says, "Retailers Gleeful at Ka-ching of Holiday Cash Registers.") Yet after four of the past five Christmases, big store chains have reported better-than-expected sales, once all the after-Christmas receipts were counted.
Since no one can really be certain what's going on, it's possible to offer contradictory versions of reality. The Post's Metro section, for example, reported on Dec. 22 that local malls were so crowded, shoppers were fighting over parking spaces. Two days later, the paper's Business section reported, "Shopping Binge Falls Short of Stores' Hopes." Puzzled readers might be forgiven for wondering what that meant.
To make matters even more complicated, media accounts of Christmastime commerce usually don't address growing retail businesses that allow shoppers to stay right at home: catalogue companies ($126 billion in sales a year) and e-commerce over the Internet (another $43 billion or so). One more caveat: Don't mistake, as reporters do, the thrashing and wailing of any particular retailer as evidence of some larger malaise. Retailing has its own internal competitive dynamics, which usually say very little about the fiscal health of Americans at large.
Yes, we've seen some retail titans come and go: Woodies, Raleigh's, Hechinger, Garfinckel's, Crown Books, just to mention a few local institutions that are no longer with us. But as The Post's business section pointed out last week, the real problem with the retail sector is not that there are too few consumers willing to spend too little money, but that there are simply too many merchants trying to sell too much uninteresting stuff. Over the past decade, the amount of retail space in the United States has grown twice as fast as the economy as a whole. And if there was any doubt about the excess capacity in the retail sector, one has only to look to the relentless discounting that has become as much a part of the Christmas season as eggnog and holiday Muzak.
So why bother with these stories at all?
The retail-in-December story is, I think, irresistible to the media for three reasons.
First, tradition. The media are creatures of habit, reflexively recycling the same seasonal chestnuts. The holiday-shopping story is a comforting staple of the season.
Second, retailers -- who are among the biggest advertisers on radio and TV and in newspapers during December -- are more than happy to encourage such stories. Media coverage of shopping is yet another reminder to the masses that it's their patriotic duty to get out there and spend.
Third, and perhaps most legitimate, the holiday shopping story seems like news you can use. Almost everybody shops in December; ergo, almost everyone is interested in the behavior of others. These stories offer the consumer a vague yardstick for measuring personal well-being. Am I better off compared to my fellow American shoppers? Am I doing better compared to this abstraction called the economy? Am I doing better than last year? The shopping story purports to answer these questions.
Even though it never does.