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Getting the facts directly from the Black Friday crowd

A shopper at a Lowe's home improvement store walks by a display of artificial Christmas trees San Francisco.

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Kai Ryssdal: The one thing we really didn't want to do today, even while realizing that we kind of had to do something about holiday shopping, was your average run-of-the-mill 'retailers made so many millions of dollars on Black Friday' story.

So we called a guy who got up early Friday morning not because he wanted to, but because he had to. Marshall Cohen is the chief retail analyst at the NPD Group, a guy for whom Black Friday is more than just a catchy phrase. Marshall, good to talk to you.

Marshall Cohen: Pleasure to be here.

Ryssdal: So I guess the very nature of your job demands that you are out there among them on Friday morning real early?

COHEN: I get the wonderful opportunity to interview consumers while they're online, while they're in stores and while they're coming out of stores. And it starts at midnight and goes all the way through 'til 16 hours straight later.

Ryssdal: What kinds of questions do you ask?

COHEN: Basically what I try to do is understand why these consumers are getting in these lines, what they plan on getting, and once they're in, are they finding what they're looking for? I like to ask the questions that retailers don't get to know the answers to, which is why didn't they buy? And then of course finding out, did they buy and spend more than last year, less than last year? Are they satisfied with what they got, how many people did they buy on their gift list for?

Ryssdal: So tell me a story; what did you find out there?

COHEN: You know, traditionally at holiday time, 24 to 26 percent of all holiday purchases are people buying things for themselves. And in the last two years, that disappeared. This year it came back. Almost 37 percent of people who shopped during the Black Friday weekend were picking up nifty giftys and some great deals for themselves. And that's a good sign, because that means that the pent-up demand has finally kicked in with consumers starting to spend the money again.

Ryssdal: Do you ever have people say, 'no get away from me, I have to wrestle somebody for this television set'?

COHEN: The most thing I get asked for is to help them load it in or help them carry it out. That's the first thing I always get. Once in a while, people sit there and ask me to go down that aisle and help them look for the item, because they can't find it. But there are occasions when people literally just say, 'hey I am absolutely too busy, don't bother me, go away.'

Ryssdal: Is this the way that we've been getting this data since you've been in the industry?

COHEN: Having been in retail for over 30 years I can tell you that trying to collect the information as quickly as possible and learning how to utilize it has been around for a while. But it certainly changes from year to year and we try to get it more defined and more understood. Most researchers don't really go into the field much, they may visit a store here and there but really to get the pulse of the weekend, you've got to spend it from start to finish and compare apples to apples. The same store at the same opening hours, compared to the ones from last year.

Ryssdal: Now did you get any personal shopping done while you were out?

COHEN: Actually not at all. It's too crazy. I'm not going to waste 40 minutes standing in line to check out. If I did find a greal deal, I would ask somebody to hold it and come back and buy it when there was no line.

Ryssdal: Other than shoe leather, are we going to use technology and all that stuff to get better figures on retail analysis?

COHEN: Yeah it used to be that retailers would wait until the weekend was over and get the computer reports and take a look. Now it's about getting right there on-the-spot information direct from the consumer as well as from the point of sale and going down the road, we're starting to use mobile devices to be able to capture what's going on within the store, where consumers are searching, what are they looking for? Also there's technology that's coming down the road that's going to be able to capture all kinds of social media usage and all kinds of emails and cell phone calls and monitor all of what they call the buzz, being able to scope it out and understand where the consumers' interests are.

Ryssdal: Marshall Cohen, chief retail analyst for the NPD Group. Marshall, thanks a lot.

COHEN: My pleasure.

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I don't get it....here we are, recently freaked out because of scanners at the airport, but apparently no comment is made about the Big Brother world of marketing: "Also there's technology that's coming down the road that's going to be able to capture all kinds of social media usage and all kinds of emails and cell phone calls and monitor all of what they call the buzz, being able to scope it out and understand where the consumers' interests are." I don't want to be monitored on my email, my phone calls, my computer use, or even while I shop at the store. I don't use Facebook, Twitter or Google because of their disregard for privacy. Why are we so hysteric about privacy related to safety issues but we are so cavalierishly oblivious about giving our privacy away to marketers?

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