OLD Media Moves

The heady rush of covering retail during the holiday season

December 16, 2011

Posted by Chris Roush


Maria Halkias has covered retail since 1993 in the business section at The Dallas Morning News.

She joined The News in 1983 and prior beats were the Texas economy and the oil and gas business. She’s a native of Gary, Ind., and a graduate of Valparaiso University.

Her first newspaper job was with her hometown paper, The Gary Post-Tribune. After that she lived in Jackson, Miss., for three years where she was a reporter for The Clarion-Ledger. She and her husband have a son in college.

Halkias talked by e-mail this week with Talking Biz News about covering retail and her tips and strategies for the holiday shopping season for those reporting and writing stories during the next week. What follows is an edited transcript.

You’ve covered retail for a while. How do you make your holiday coverage different each year?

Actually, that isn’t the problem you would think it might be because a year makes a big difference. Many topics are worth visiting annually, and the story is often markedly different. Seasonal hiring, for example, changes depending on what’s happening in the economy. In the deepest part of the recession, those seasonal jobs that would have helped households hit with layoffs weren’t even there. The growth in 2008 hiring was the lowest since 1989. That was a story.

There’s a different consumer to cover every Christmas. The state of the consumer changes along with the unemployment rate, the savings rate, consumer debt levels, etc. Shoppers also adopt new habits from year to year.

At the same time retailers are facing different issues every year whether it’s mobile apps making the business totally transparent in 2011 or Wal-Mart deciding to start slashing prices in October in 2009 and 2010.

There are always retailers who are doing especially poorly and need a good Christmas. They’re worth watching more closely. On the local level, it’s more obvious during the holiday season which malls and shopping centers are losing market share and which ones are getting stronger.

Since last Christmas, new stores come into the market and others leave and that can change the local shopping dynamics. Where did all the Borders customers go this year? Where did the Circuit City shoppers go a couple years ago?

I usually don’t get to all the stories I want to do every Christmas. I need to stick with the ones that have a local relevance. We can run wire on some broader topics. I like to say that anything can be turned into a Christmas story. I did one this year with the two new division presidents at Dallas-based Neiman Marcus. The only reference to Christmas was that luxury retail has a tailwind heading into the season this year, but even as it’s expected to be a bright spot of the holiday, Neiman Marcus still has challenges. The two new presidents addressed them in a Q&A format.

What was your plan for Black Friday this year?

Black Friday, a term retail reporters have reluctantly adopted along with early bird specials and door busters, had a whole new story line this year with the biggest chains moving in on Thanksgiving Day. It wasn’t just the outlet malls opening early.

Macy’s, Kohl’s, Target, Best Buy all opened at midnight instead of their 4 a.m. and 5 a.m. openings the prior year. And Wal-Mart moved its door busters to 10 p.m. on Thanksgiving. Toys R Us opened an hour earlier at 9 p.m. on Thanksgiving. National teen chains, Aeropostale, American Eagle, Old Navy and Gap, were open in the major malls at midnight since Macy’s was.

Those midnight openings brought out more young adults, men and young children than in prior years. I was amazed how many babies asleep in strollers and eight year olds were running around Toys R Us. Children didn’t used to be part of Black Friday. Another difference from prior years, employees publicly complained and one Target clerk started a petition. Best Buy’s CEO apologized for following the competition to a midnight opening. These were all new dimensions to Black Friday.

Basically, to cover Black Friday in the past few years I think reporters have to pull an all-nighter. It’s been that way since about 2006. I hit all the big stores well before they open and try to talk to the first people in the line until I get an anecdote I want to use to illustrate that angle and so on. I’m back for as many store openings as the schedule permits to see how the crowds act and whether they’re cherry-picking the doorbusters or buying broadly. I ask people where they’ve been already and where they are going. Why they are out and how much do they expect to save? Big changes in household incomes in the past year will generate definitive answers: “I know for sure I’m spending less and I know I’m spending more.” Then you find out what they plan to buy and what they’ve dropped from their list.

I talk to as many shoppers as I can, at least 30. I observe at least that many more for short blocks of time. Since about 2006, it’s become an all-nighter assignment. I take a couple of one-hour naps and drink coffee. I make up a route in advance with some of the same stores and shopping centers and new ones.

I set up photo assignments and interviews several days in advance. I schedule the interviews beginning at 8 a.m. on Friday. By 2 p.m. I’m at a computer and talk to a couple more people by phone. Those interviews are with analysts, retailers (corporate executives and store managers) and mall managers. I use some of the same analysts each year on Black Friday because they’ve been doing this a long time and understand Black Friday dynamics well. I do a short story for the web early on Friday. The full report is in the paper on Saturday.

Last year, we had live tweet feeds on our home page, but didn’t have the manpower to do it again this year.

I’ve talked with other retail reporters about approaching Black Friday differently. But that broad story that describes the period and quotes lots of shoppers, is the story that editors want to run on the front page and readers want to read. Since Black Friday has become such a sideshow, I’ve been getting more reader reaction from those stores in the last couple of years. People are interested.

Some reporters have tried to follow one couple, sit in one spot of a mall and chronicle it, get behind the scene of a store, but those stories aren’t going to capture what happened. They can be excellent sidebars or section front companion stores. In general, I’m opposed to first person, filling-the-shoes-of-a-clerk-for-a-day stories. They are forced and too staged.

What is your strategy between Black Friday and Christmas Eve?

Real results start to trickle out. Some are surveys, some measure customer traffic. The first Thursday in December, stores report November sales. Fewer of them are doing it, but there are about 30 companies that still report monthly including Target, Macy’s, J.C. Penney and Kohl’s.

There’s a lull for brick-and-mortar after Thanksgiving weekend until mid-December. The last 10 days before Christmas are some of the biggest shopping days.

Online has a slightly different rhythm, its big day is Cyber Monday and then it keeps building momentum during the brick-and-mortar lull. I covered website performance after Cyber Monday. Even though the industry knew this was going to be a huge online Christmas some sites didn’t spend the money they needed to and had some failures.

This is the time to do the holiday stories that are relevant to your market. I think it’s a useful story if you are a one- or two-mall market to do an update on those properties. Lots of people only go shopping in a big way this time of year and telling them what’s new at the mall is helpful.

What are the trends that you’ve seen so far this holiday season that you’re covering?

So much is still recovering from the recession and finally making bigger strides this year and I’ve been covering some of those.

Gift cards sales are stronger. The category of holiday decorations is showing strength this year. Home Depot and Lowe’s both planned for their holiday decor sales to be up significantly, and Home Depot especially is making a bigger push in the business. I looked at that because those chains are inserting themselves into the season and trying to capture share from Michaels Stores, which is based here.

Even online had slowed during the recession, but this year it’s expected to make its biggest post recession leap in market share, taking business away from brick-and-mortar. Amazon.com’s Price Check offer on Dec. 10 was fascinating. It kind of solidified the idea that stores are Amazon’s showrooms. I do a ShopTalk column in November and December where I try to tell people what retailers are doing and find some off beat stories about products I think would help others with their gift lists.

What’s your philosophy about getting shoppers in your stories?

Not all stories need shoppers, but regular people and their circumstances can really drive home a trend. It’s really important on Black Friday. There are some goofy people out that night, but most are smart, careful shoppers who know what they’re out to buy, know that the price is right and how much they are saving. Especially out in the suburbs where there are lots of middle-income families, they’re really trying to stretch their budgets. And they are very talkative that night. They understand Christmas is a business story and they are part of it.

Do you try to get to the malls or shopping areas every day?

In November and December, I’m out there every weekend. During the week it’s a little harder but I try to arrange lunch meetings at a mall and if I’m interviewing an executive I suggest we meet in their store.

How does your blogging and tweeting accentuate your coverage?

I don’t have my own blog and have sporadically contributed to others on dallasnews.com, but I absolutely love Twitter. I write tweets about my beat. I’m trying to build a following that’s interested in retail.

My description says: “I’m a reporter covering retail for The Dallas Morning News. Some of my Tweets are totally Texas, but hopefully still relevant to you retail junkies.”

I’m following retail analysts and consultants, other retail beat reporters, several stores to see how they are communicating with shoppers.

I have broken news on twitter and sometimes I use it to tell people that a new store is opening. A tweet about H&M picking a Plano mall as its second store in the market I think has been my biggest re-tweet. I’ve tweeted quotes from executives during their live earnings calls. It’s hard to build an audience. I hope I’m directing some traffic back to dallasnews.com.

I’m reading more and more articles from links in tweets. It’s so convenient, my guess is more people will be accessing articles that way.

How much credence do you give the holiday sales projections that come out before shopping starts?

We all quote forecasts from National Retail Federation and the International Council of Shopping Centers. The forecasts are relevant because it’s what the industry thinks it’s going to do. So in that regard, it’s worth reporting. It’s a way to quantify the season. I’ve seen the NRF raise its forecast mid-stream, which it just did this week, and lower it, which happened during the recession.

NRF bases its forecast on the government’s retail sales data, minus autos, gasoline stations and restaurants. So their economists forecast the same data that private economists use and it’s been consistent with private forecasts.

The other big numbers the NRF puts out are based on surveys done by BIGresearch. The methodology is sound. Their sample sizes are among the largest and the polling continues throughout the season.

There’s one survey number that’s a pet peeve of mine. From its ongoing surveys, NRF extrapolates how many people visit stores over Black Friday weekend. It’s always a huge number. This year it was 226 million. That is commonly quoted as “226 million people went shopping over the Thanksgiving weekend.” But it’s shopper visits. One person who shopped all four days is counted four times.

Do you typically downplay what the retailers are saying during the season because they have a vested interested?

I have built up relationships over the years, and I have a sense of the BS and the real trends. If they tell you they’re selling coats like crazy and no one else is and their racks are overflowing with coats, then you’ve got to wonder. If you ask what’s doing well and not so well they will answer. Plus the publicly-traded companies can’t hype once they’re in the season. They can’t say wonderful things about how they’re doing and then report sales declines.

What’s the most unique holiday shopping story you’ve ever seen?

Every year I read a couple trend stories that I wished I’d done. I am pretty competitive and have a short little fit inside my head when I see the WSJ had five holiday stories in one day. Or they did a story I planned to do next week. But I try to do the best with the resources I have.

I can’t think of the “most unique holiday shopping story” but I’ll give a favorite that I wrote. And it may inspire other reporters to consider historical pieces that are relevant to the cities they write about.

I did a story that ran on Dec. 25, 2001, from an interview with the incredibly lucid 96-year-old Stanley Marcus. (This great job that I have allows me access to some of the smartest and accomplished people.) The story compared and contrasted the fashion and retail business after two surprise attacks on America: 9-11 and Pearl Harbor. Basically, we were told to go shopping to stimulate the economy in 2001. Sixty years earlier after Pearl Harbor, Marcus was called to Washington D.C. to work at the War Production Board where his mandate was to convince an industry to freeze fashion at 1942 so no one would need anything and all goods and raw materials could be devoted to the war effort. It was a sober Christmas in 2001 and the story was just the right tone for Christmas morning. Syndicated columnist Richard Reeves wrote a column about it, that was fun.

Another story I liked a lot was also about Neiman Marcus. I was able to chronicle the career path of the company’s head of store design in a story about how he was preparing these magical holiday windows for children at the downtown Dallas store.

While I don’t like stepping in the roles of other people, being a fly on the wall is great for gathering string. I was inside a Target store on Black Friday 2010 for a short time and positioned myself in front of two piles of 40 boxed big screen TVs that disappeared into shopping carts within 5 minutes of the store opening. That’s nice color for your Black Friday story.

Here’s one that WSJ retail writer Ann Zimmerman did in 2010. She spent Black Friday inside a Target during the four hours before a 4 a.m. opening.

How is your holiday shopping going so far?

I guess I’ve become one of the frugalistas. My approach to being a careful shopper this year was more about how I spent, not how much.

I purchased my first Christmas gift way back in July. It was the right price and the right gift for one of my nieces. So my frugal nature this year was to start early and buy a few things every month with my American Express card which has to be paid-in-full monthly, right? So, now it’s December, and I’m happy to say it worked. A few gifts will be on the January bill too, but that’s OK.

The problem is those efficiently purchased gifts aren’t in the mail yet.

Anything else?

Happy holidays to all you retail reporters. This is a great beat. Embrace it.

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