PORTLAND, Maine — For economic insights, Black Friday’s something of a black hole.

The frenzied day of deals and discounts marks the official start of the holiday shopping season, but not much else.

Observing the spectacle of late-night campers waiting for deals is an annual tradition for news outlets. But as Ben Casselman, chief economics writer for the website FiveThirtyEight, wrote Wednesday, the day doesn’t provide much to analyze.

“Unfortunately, preliminary Black Friday reports contain almost no useful information about the state of the economy,” he wrote.

It’s tempting to put a finger to the air to see how strong the gust of sales will be come December, but there’s no good way to do that.

Looking at all retail sales through September this year, it might appear that Maine is in for a robust holiday shopping season.

Almost every month of this year has outpaced the years 2004 to 2014 for retail sales, not adjusting for inflation (represented below).

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With comparisons of this year’s retail sales receipts in hand, it’s impossible to say what that might mean for the holiday shopping season more broadly.

Those tax receipt figures demonstrate that: December 2013 had lower sales than other years, despite beating them out for retail sales in just about every other month.

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And even then, that December drop in the otherwise stronger retail year of 2013 doesn’t necessarily demonstrate that Maine consumers were cutting back on shopping.

Online shopping has continued to rise, which could take a dent out of taxable sales. Maine and other states have tried to rein in those sales taxes lost to online sales in recent years.

Figures on holiday sales will start coming out over the weekend, but Casselman wrote that estimates from the National Retail Federation from last year were far off the mark from final U.S. Department of Commerce retail sales estimates released months later.

The only way to know how holiday season shopping will pan out — just like with Black Friday deals — is to wait.


Darren Fishell

Darren is a Portland-based reporter for the Bangor Daily News writing about the Maine economy and business. He's interested in putting economic data in context and finding the stories behind the numbers.