Told ya so.
OK, that is not terribly polite. But when it comes to the holiday shopping season, it's true, and it tells us something about the utility of public opinion polls that reaches well outside the little hothouse of election politics.
Polls, as I’ve suggested before, far too often are gauged by their proximity to election outcomes, and little or nothing else. In fact they anticipate all sorts of other public activities as well, and the latest reports on retail spending are a good example.
Presumably no sentient being is remotely surprised by the International Council of Shopping Centers’ report today of a 2.2 percent decline in sales for the holiday season, the biggest such drop since at least 1970. Certainly no sentient being who’d been watching the polls this year.
Consider one, our ABC News poll back on Nov. 16: “Holiday Spending Plans Plummet, Signaling a Dismal Retail Season,” we headlined it. Among the supporting data: “Fifty-one percent say they’ll spend less this year than last on holiday gifts, matching the sharpest consumer retreat in polls dating back 23 years.”
When we refreshed our result a month later, it was worse: By Dec. 14, we found, 57 percent said they’d cut their spending, a record high in this data series. “The closest in any previous year was 51 percent in 1991, when holiday sales were their worst in a generation.”
The signs were apparent well earlier, in our ongoing ABC News Consumer Comfort Index, which tanked all year. It set a record low in its own 23-year time series last May, then again in November and December. One gauge, asking Americans whether it was “a good time to buy things you want and need” dived from 31 percent positive a year ago to 19 percent in May and 18 percent in August and again in October. Its average for the year was its worst on record.
Early warning? It was a Klaxon.
As with politics, there’s been far greater detail in our economic polls, especially in our mid-December survey’s extensive look at the roots and directions of the public’s economic anxiety. But as good data help us understand the contours of public opinion, so they anticipate the results of those attitudes. It’s why the vast bulk of survey research isn’t carried out by news organizations seeking to report public views, but by corporations seeking to understand how such attitudes will impact their bottom line.
In sum, it’s hard to imagine any retailers were surprised by their dismal results this Christmas. But if some were, the cause is clear. All they had to do was ask.