Retail sales during the holiday season were:
c) Better than expected
d) Worse than expected
e) Fill in the blank
And the answer is all of the above. Select any description of the holiday season and you can probably find a research report or news headline to support your choice.
Forecasting how retailers will perform during the holiday season and measuring their performance in November and December are popular guessing games for researchers, analysts and retail reporters. This year, with each new research report, the verdict on the retail season seemed to flip from winning, to losing, back to winning.
The "was it good, was it bad?" debate began right after Black Friday weekend, which this year started a day early with widespread store openings on Thanksgiving.
ShopperTrak, a Chicago-based analytics firm that gathers data from 60,000 traffic-counting devices in stores, reported the day after Black Friday that combined Thanksgiving and Black Friday sales rose 2.3 percent compared with the previous year. The score reported in most headlines? Retailers up 2.3 percent.
A day later, the National Retail Federation, the leading industry group, reported that shoppers spent 3.9 percent less during the Black Friday weekend than they did in 2012, based on a survey of consumers. The scorecard that day? Retailers down 3.9 percent.
Two days after that, ShopperTrak reported that when results for the Saturday and Sunday of Black Friday weekend were added in, sales for the entire weekend rose 1 percent. The score? Retailers were up slightly, but it looked as if they were headed for a losing season.
That take on the season remained the prevailing betting line throughout December, which may be the reason why Wall Street responded so exuberantly Jan. 14 when the National Retail Federation, using just-released Commerce Department data for December, reported that holiday retail sales rose a respectable 3.8 percent. The Standard & Poor's 500 index surged 20 points that day, its biggest jump since Dec. 18.
Retail analysts warn that the real score for the season can't be summed up in a single number and that a separate scorecard is needed for each retailer -- rather than a mass average that camouflages individual results.
Adding to the confusion this year was the significant growth in online sales, which aren't included in the ShopperTrak or National Retail Federation numbers and are usually reported as a separate category. The e-commerce tracking firm comScore reported this month that online sales increased 10 percent. And further complicating matters, that only includes purchases made from desktop computers, not mobile devices.
The proliferation of reports, and the different metrics they use to assess the strength of holiday sales, made Christmas 2013 particularly hard to call.
The holiday sales guessing game is played every year because even though retailers know -- usually to the penny -- whether they did better or worse than, say, on the year-earlier Black Friday, they generally don't share that information.
And they never will, said Howard Davidowitz, chairman of Davidowitz & Associates, a national retail consulting and investment banking firm based in New York City. They won't, he said, because "No. 1, their stock could get killed" if the results are bad, and "No. 2, they could reveal something to their competitors. Why would they do that?"
Ten years ago, most major retailers still reported same-store sales -- monthly sales at stores open at least a year compared with the previous year. Back then, the November same-store reports provided a pretty good indication of the strength or weakness of Black Friday weekend. The combined November and December averages were considered the final score for the holiday season. Now, only about a dozen significant national chains still report monthly results, and none of the biggest retail players -- including Wal-Mart, Macy's, Target and Best Buy -- do so.
As a result, research firms and other retail watchers have stepped up to provide estimates, which are based on different measures.
"The landscape has changed quite a bit," said Bill Martin, founder of ShopperTrak.