Ever since the beginning of the Great Recession, the mainstream media has been relentless in its cheerleading for "green shoots" and the idea that a real recovery is just around the corner. Whether it involves reporting manipulated government statistics without question or simply parroting the positive quotes of clueless politicos, the status quo bias on behalf of corporate America is so obvious that it is not a question open to debate.
Yet another new low may have been achieved recently with how CNN chose to report the recent figures showing that the 2012 Christmas shopping season has witnessed an all time record high in the amount of purchased items being returned by consumers. While serious analysts have rightly deduced that this is yet another sign of the distress being felt by financially strapped shoppers and the recent Sears announcement that it would close 100 or more stores due to poor earnings seemed to back up their assertions, CNN went completely the other direction, choosing instead to essentially take a press release from the National Retail Federation and treat it like a serious news story:
The holidays aren't even over yet and shoppers are racking up returns already.The NRF, of course, has a vested interest in convincing people that the huge number of returns are no big deal so they won't feel even more skittish about the economy and hence less likely to go shopping. So you would think that in the interest of journalistic balance, CNN might have gone and sought out a dissenting opinion, especially in light of the fact that the economy has been struggling for a full four years now. Nope, apparently the only relevant names the producer of this story had on his or her Rolodex were those of other cheerleaders:
Whether it's the wrong size, wrong style or just plain weird, shoppers will return $46.28 billion in holiday merchandise, a record high, according to the National Retail Federation.
This year, shoppers are bringing items back even before those presents are wrapped or bows are tied. That's partly a result of record-breaking sales on Black Friday and Cyber Monday, when buyers flocked to stores like Target, Wal-Mart and Best Buy.
"Higher sales will bring higher return amounts," said Kathy Grannis, a spokeswoman for the NRF.
Some gift buyers are bringing purchases back now to take advantage of additional markdowns retailers are making in the days before Christmas, explained Candace Corlett of WSL Strategic Retail, a New York-based consulting firm.But I thought the whole justification for the asinine idea to begin the Black Friday sales on Thanksgiving evening and lure the drooling consumer zombies out of their houses while their turkey dinners were still digesting is that THOSE prices were supposed to be the bottom of the barrel. And yet now we find out that they have been cut 30-40% more, which if true could only mean that retailers like Sears were getting desperate and damaging their bottom line in the process.
"Now they can get what they bought three weeks ago for 30% to 40% less," she said.
A surge in online shopping -- and free or return shipping -- also is spurring the trend, Corlett said. Buyers often order more than one size or style before making a final decision on the item they want, then return the rest.
But the prize for trying to put shiny red lipstick on this rather ugly pig comes from the third cheerleader CNN interviewed:
At brick-and-mortar stores, early holiday returns can boost business because it gets shoppers into the store once more.I wasn't math major, but even I know that if 70% of the returnees bought something else it means 30% didn't. Which also means that even if every one of the returnees who did buy something else spent the full amount of the original purchase price, the store is out 30% for the total of all returned items. I think back to every occasion in which I have ever returned a gift. Rarely has what I bought to replace it ever cost more than a few bucks more than the original item.
"If people return something, there's a 70% chance they will buy something else," said Britt Beemer, retail analyst and chairman of America's Research Group.
The article then concluded with a bunch of NRF blather about how polling statistics show that it's becoming socially acceptable to return gifts, which I won't reprint here because the stupidity of it made my head hurt. Though there has been some stiff competition, this article is my nominee for this year's most obvious piece of business reporter stenography passing itself off as legitimate journalism.
Addendum: also not mentioned by CNN, but reported by the Atlantic Wire, shoplifting in America was also up around $62 million this holiday season:
Hope you have a Merry Christmas, America, because you've been extremely naughty at the mall this year. After surveying retailers in the U.S., the Global Retail Theft Barometer says that shoppers pinched $1.8 billion worth of merchandise during the four weeks leading up to Christmas, reports the AP. $1.8 billion! For context, $1.8 billion is a 6 percent increase from 2010 -- a total of approximately 62 million Tickle Me Elmos at retail. And this is a year when there aren't even any good toys to buy. When stores are offering big markdowns because people aren't spending as much. But that's exactly the point: while there will always be some built-in kleptomania to society, the sour economy drives some people to buy less and steal more. Or at least gives them a good excuse for doing so.
Bonus: I can't believe I almost got all the way through the holiday season without posting this song