By Jack Shafer
The capitalist horn of plenty emitted a flat note last month, just 15 days before Christmas. Or, at least, that was the sheet music provided by the New York Times' Page One story "Tardy Catalogue Shoppers Risk Losing Out as Supplies Run Short" (Dec. 10, 1996).
"[T]hat Gore-Tex hat for your brother-in-law" was out of stock at L.L. Bean and Lands' End, wrote Times reporter Jennifer Steinhauer. And the red silk pajama top from the Victoria's Secret catalog you had your eye on? Forget it. What's more, according to the Times, the mail-order-apparel folks were running out of all sorts of outerwear and slippers and silk undershirts and lace nightdresses just two weeks away from Christmas!
"Shoppers may find they won't be able to get what they want if they don't order this week," Steinhauer warned, sounding more like a copywriter than a newswriter. "The most popular items appear to be outerwear and all things made of fleece. But one order went completely unfilled when L.L. Bean was called on Sunday for a 'cardinal' blanket, a hat, a pair of moccasins, a silk undershirt and a Stellar Scope."
The Times story set off a panic--not among consumers--but among Steinhauer's fellow journalists. You may think of the Times as the Newspaper of Record; its competition thinks of it as the Racing Form, a national news tip sheet, and the Times' choices about what's newsworthy are automatically cribbed by those lower in the editorial food chain. During the next two weeks, CNN, NPR, the Kansas City Star, the Detroit News, USA Today, and the CBS Evening News all did variations on the Times story, flogging consumers in the service of the capitalists with alarmist to semialarmist pieces about how mail-order retailers were running out of stuff.
Joining the "Buy Now or You'll Regret It!" conspiracy was CBS News economic correspondent Ray Brady, whose derivative story aired 12 hours after the Times story hit the streets. Brady started with the "good news"--retail sales were up--but quickly uncovered the "bad news" embedded in the good news. (Economic news is like that. If somebody is making a killing, then surely somebody is dying.)
"It's getting tougher and tougher to find what you want, especially if you're shopping from catalogs," Brady said, stoking the hysteria with his report of "tight stock" at Lands' End and L.L. Bean.
Then, doing Steinhauer one better as a copywriter, Brady alerted viewers to similar shortages afflicting department stores, reporting that the shelves at Carson Pirie Scott were nearly empty! "Carson's said today, forget that last-minute stuff. Get here quick. Stocks are short. Many stores already are running tight on sizes and colors, particularly cashmere and outerwear: coats, hats, gloves."
Stocks are short! Running tight! The New York Times and CBS Evening News have reported that the taupe-and-mauve Polartec sky is falling!
Was there a great apparel shortage during Christmas 1996? Keeping her perspective through the media madness is Catherine Hartnett, spokeswoman for L.L. Bean, who says that this season marked a return to mail-order normalcy. The anomaly, as the Times story sort of acknowledges, was the downturn year of 1995, when Lands' End overordered and was left holding the excess inventory. (For some reason, Lands' End's 1995 surplus didn't spawn a "Procrastinating Catalogue Shoppers Get Whatever They Want as Late as They Want It" story in the Times.) As the Times reports, Lands' End overreacted to the bad year by ordering 20 percent less merchandise for 1996, and suffered for it.
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