SAGE Advice: No Blue Christmas, After All?

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By: Leo J. Shapiro and Steve Yahn

So was it a Blue Christmas, after all? Readers of our Christmas homestretch column last month may remember our prediction that retailers and their newspaper partners might well be singing the blues over lackluster Christmas sales. But from various news sources and our own conversations with industry contacts, it now appears that there was a strong surge of post-Christmas buying activity as a result of the annual rite of intense shopping for bargains.

Gift card redemption was rampant because some gift cards turn out to be more perishable than figgy pudding. Some retailers, it happens, automatically devalue gift cards with time.

Moreover, we have some evidence that post-Christmas gift buying might be on the rise as consumers decide to forgo a little Christmas morning excitement to buy bigger, better, or cheaper gifts immediately thereafter.

Our annual post-mortem report on Christmas sales season results –based on our January national poll — will be out soon. So stay tuned to this Web site for the numbers and the analysis.

Meanwhile, let’s take a look not at the month past but the year ahead.

Is there a newspaper editor who doesn?t believe she or he knows what their readers wish for? Probably not. But just in case, results of our Leo J. Shapiro and Associates national poll in December asking U.S. consumers what they wish and expect for themselves, their country, and the world in 2006 may provide some surprises.

The biggest eye-popper for us is that nearly twice as many spontaneously say they wish for good health (29%) as wealth (16%). Six percent spontaneously say that they wish for good luck.

Therefore, news developments relating to health — good or bad — turn the heads of more readers than news about wealth.

The Big Picture reveals a fascinating dichotomy: While people say they monitor the national economy, they are not emotionally engaged by news of the economy; whereas people not only monitor news of the war in Iraq and matters of war and peace elsewhere, they are emotionally engaged by it.

Four in ten (42%) spontaneously name war as a national problem. More than half (54%) spontaneously wish for peace on earth and more than a third (34%) spontaneously wish for a nation at peace.

The economy is listed spontaneously by more than four in ten (42%) as a major problem facing the nation. When asked directly, more than half (52%) expect the U.S. economy to worsen. But only 7% spontaneously wish for an improved national economy, and only 1% spontaneously wish for a better global economy.

In sum, while more U.S. consumers — and no doubt especially newspaper readers — are keeping an eye on problems with the economy, the largest segment of the public is emotionally engaged with issues of war and peace, especially in news emanating from the Iraq war.

As for other things people are monitoring, nearly six in ten (59%) see conditions for the nation worsening in general and 54% are displeased with President Bush.

Spontaneously stated, more than a third of the respondents (35%) are keeping a baleful eye on the federal government. Social issues such as poverty and crime are named as problems by 22%. Two in ten (20%) fret about environmental woes. Problems with social services such as education and healthcare preoccupy 18%. And damage to the nation’s moral fiber worry 13%.

THE BOTTOM LINE

From our vantage point, 2006 appears destined to be “The Year of Crosscurrents” in the news. Individual editors will of course zero in on those issues that are deemed to be of keenest interest to their readers.

But there do seem to be several overriding themes resulting from our poll. Perhaps most importantly, given the high percentage of respondents who are emotionally engaged in monitoring news of the Iraq war and other war-and-peace development internationally, Americans are not in an isolationist mood.

To the contrary, in the “marketplace of news,” they want as much intelligent, unbiased news and commentary as possible about war and peace throughout the world.

The most well-grounded and at the same time visionary editors in 2006 will be those who make a distinction between what readers are monitoring just because they are trouble spots that bear constant watching and those things that touch their readers deeply and in a highly emotional way.

These will be the editors who constantly remember that, perhaps as never before, citizens are looking to the Fourth Estate to play a vital role in responsibly maintaining the balance of power between government and the people. This is one of those watershed periods when the press can earn its right to freedom of speech.

SAGE Advice will continue to monitor issues of interest to newspaper editors and publishers for both Editor & Publisher and at our own Web site, www.sagegrowth.com, which researches and analyzes a variety of business-related consumer behavior and media trends.

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