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It’s Baaaack!: Braving that Black Friday shopping story

The pre-dawn events of the day after Thanksgiving may cause some reporters’ adrenaline to jump as they attempt to cover the door-busting frenzy in their respective hometowns. For other business reporters, it seems that no two words stir more sickly feelings of dread than “Black Friday.”

Black Friday 2011Some veteran journos say they loathe covering the post-Thanksgiving shopping rush because the story is over-hyped, over-played and has little value for readers. Others say they despise covering the “hordes-of-shoppers-flooded-the-malls” story so much that they wouldn’t want to comment for this article.

One reporter’s tongue-in-cheek spite: “I hate it. I hate it. I hate it.”

Despite any resentment or fears of stale coverage, some of us have no choice but to write an article on Black Friday. Here are a few tips and words of wisdom to help you cover the events of the day; add value to what you write; and also go outside the box with that coverage.

ADD VALUE

Melissa Allison, a Seattle Times business reporter has covered the day after Thanksgiving with her colleague, Amy Martinez, for the past five years.

Allison cautioned that the day presents challenges for business journalists. “It’s more of a feature,” she said. “It’s the same basic story every year.”

To inject more value into coverage, Allison suggests the following:

  • Give a critical eye to pundits’ pre-holiday season projections – as those often are wrong
  • Do your homework on your sources. Sometimes the “holiday shopping expert” touted on the press release that just rolled into your inbox is being bankrolled by a retailer.
  • Pay heed to earnings calls and reports. Companies such as Costco shed light on their approaches and tactics for the holiday shopping season.
  • Know your malls. Some shopping center officials can be difficult sometimes and may want to hold a reporters’ hand through the process. Others are fine with reporters who roam more freely.
  • Come prepared before you conduct the parking lot interview. Find a person whose shopping cart contents are representative of a certain trend (be it electronics or luxury item) and ask them about the reasoning behind their purchase and why they’re feeling confident about spending money.

“It is nice not to be completely random,” Allison said.

Her Times’ colleague Jon Talton, who writes an economics analysis column for the paper and also is a Reynolds Center contributing writer, said the frenzied environment overwhelms the sophistication and skepticism inherent to reporting.

Journalists should dig deeper into looking at the stakes for retailers (who are the winners and losers); be aware of how consumers have deleveraged; and unearth the “compelling personalities.”

“I remember the (Wall Street Journal) doing a story years ago about a manager for a single department store, preparing for the holiday season,” Talton wrote. “It was full of details, sophisticated knowledge of how the business actually worked, used her as the lens through which to tell the whole story.  “That’s value-added journalism I’ll pay for in a crowded information universe. ‘Shoppers Flock to Malls’ … no.”

OUTSIDE THE (BIG) BOX

Al Tompkins, Poynter’s sovereign of story ideas has written about Black Friday coverage in the past, but also provided some additional suggestions based on recent surveys and trends.

“Lots of websites give you the scoop on what is going to be hot … I like stories about other stuff,” he said via e-mail.

Black Friday Shopping

By Flickr user Beth Rankin

Tompkins said that “other stuff” could be:

HANDY RESOURCES

During the past eight seasons over covering Black Friday, I’ve come to realize how imperative it is to develop a battle plan.

  • Create a social media strategy for the day and be mindful of Twitter hashtags shoppers may be using. In past years, our paper anchored a real-time Twitter ticker on the front of our webpage featuring tweets that included our localized hashtag (#bocoblackfriday)
  • A website or Facebook solicit in early November can help you secure that family you want to camp out with/follow around in the early morning or to meet up with the folks who are not shopping that day.
  • Be aware how earlier openings could affect coverage. Macy’s and Target are starting sales at midnight.
  • Don’t let Black Friday (which sometimes is not the biggest shopping day of the holiday season) overshadow other potential business stories on that day.
  • There are a number of sites to store in the quiver for the day.
  • BFads.net and theblackfriday.com: These sites have a number of ad scans uploaded prior to their expected publishing dates. The ads could be used to help gauge trends and retailers’ expectations through comparing prices, placement and tactic. They also are helpful in drawing up a plan of attack for reporters in determining what stores to hit at what times. Theblackfriday.com also features content on “what’s hot.”
  • The NPD Group‘s holidaymarketresearch.com, which has some accessible market research; projections; and analysis.
  • The International Council of Shopping Centers, an industry trade association
  • The National Retail Federation, an industry advocacy organization
  • ShopperTrak analyzes foot-traffic for retailers and typically publishes information on the “busiest shopping days.”
  • Consulting firm Accenture typically conducts a holiday-related survey. This year’s survey also contains information on consumer behaviors and technology use.
  •  Other firms, including Deloitte, jump into the soothsaying fray as well. Here’s a recent Philadelphia Inquirer piece following that release.
  • I also like Reis Inc. for some perspective on the health of shopping center and mall real estate.
  • Be sure to keep the U.S. Department of Commerce’s latest data close at hand.

 

 

In Retail | Lifestyle, Story ideas.

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