The Big Lie About Shopping on Thanksgiving and Black Friday

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Daniel Acker / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Recently released consumer surveys give the impression that roughly half of shoppers will be hitting the malls on Black Friday, and over one-third of Americans will be out at stores on Thanksgiving. Absurd.

While the consensus has it that retailers will have a rough 2013 holiday season, there is plenty of data indicating that the spread of stores opening on Thanksgiving and endless Black Friday deals will succeed in drawing the masses out to stores.

A post at Retail Customer Experience, for instance, cites a consumer poll conducted on the behalf of International Council of Shopping Centers Inc. and Goldman Sachs:

With more retailers opening their doors on Thanksgiving Day, 13 percent of U.S. consumers plan to shop on that day. However, a hefty 46 percent of consumers plan to shop on Black Friday (Nov. 29), as the day continues to be the prime focus for the bargain-conscious consumer.

(MORE: This Year, Black Friday Basically Starts a Week Early … Thanks to Walmart)

An Adweek story, meanwhile, using the research of Placed, an analytics firm that focuses on smartphone usage, states that “almost one quarter of shoppers plan to hit stores on Thanksgiving Day,” and “45% of those surveyed said they plan to shop the Friday after Thanksgiving.”

Then there’s the widely-cited holiday survey from Accenture, which some news outlets apparently think gives the impression than an even greater portion of consumers will be out crowding the stores on Thanksgiving and Black Friday. Here’s how the Detroit Free Press summed up the data:

This year, 38% of shoppers are likely to shop on Thanksgiving Day or night, according to a survey by Accenture, a management consulting company. Add to that: 55% of shoppers are likely to hit the stores on the day after Thanksgiving, compared to 44% in 2011.

What do you think such factoids truly mean? The way that press releases and news stories use phrases like “hit the stores” or simply “go shopping” seems to imply that the consumers in question will actually be venturing out to physical retail locations to do their shopping. Many of the data points also claim that the number of shoppers “hitting the stores” on Black Friday and other days is on the rise. But to a large degree, neither of these ideas is true. In fact, the implication given that, say, more than one in three American consumers will leave their homes on Thanksgiving to visit the mall is blatantly false.

(MORE: Black Friday Is Facing Extinction)

Take the Accenture survey. When asked to clarify the 38% figure listed as the portion of shoppers “likely to shop on Thanksgiving Day this year,” an Accenture representative admitted that the number included anyone browsing online or in stores on the holiday. That means that anyone clicking around on a retailer website for a minute or two on Turkey Day would be lumped into this group. Hardly what the average person thinks about when reading a phrase like “hit the stores.” (NOTE: It was the Detroit Free Press using this language, not Accenture.)

What’s more, there are other surveys that directly dispute the implications that a huge chunk of American society will be frequenting malls and retail centers on Thanksgiving, or that physical Black Friday shopping crowds are increasing. A survey from the National Retail Federation—which is in the business of pumping up the retail sector—has it that 23.5% (not 38%) of consumers plan on shopping on Thanksgiving, and presumably, the vast majority of them will focus their efforts online. (In the Accenture poll, only 28% of those who planned on shopping on Thanksgiving said they would be doing most of their shopping in physical stores.)

The latest data from Nielsen holds that the percentage of American consumers who will not go shopping in physical stores on Black Friday is clearly on the rise. According to the study, 85% of consumers will not be visiting any brick-and-mortar stores on Black Friday. Just 13% plan on hitting physical stores on Black Friday 2013, down from 17% in 2012. (Compare that to the survey results mentioned above, which imply that around half of American consumers will “go shopping” on Black Friday.) “This is part of a four-year downward trend, where consumers report a declining interest in Black Friday shopping,” Nielsen researchers explain.

(MORE: Not to Be a Grinch, But Holiday Shopping Is Looking Pretty Bad This Year)

All this being said, the stores that are open on Thanksgiving and hosting the best deals on Black Friday are sure to be crowded with loads of eager physical shoppers. After all, even if these retailers manage to draw only a tiny percentage of the American public, that represents tens of millions of consumers.

It’s just that, similar to many Black Friday deals, survey data can be misleading, and not anywhere near as impressive as it seems after closer inspection.