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Black Friday Electronic Sales Down 6% (If You Ignore the Hot Products)

This morning, an NPD research group press release hit our inbox, carrying the alarming headline of "Black Friday U.S. Retail Consumer Electronics Sales Decline Nearly 6 Percent."   

Whoa! That's bad news for the industries LAPTOP covers. Before we blasted out a sensationalist headline of our own, however, we continued reading the release, and buried down in the fine print all the way at the bottom, we found the following line:

*Consumer electronics excludes: Amazon Kindle products, iPad, Surface, mobile phones, and video games.

So Black Friday consumer electronics sales were down nearly six percent, but only if you don't count the top sellers in the most crucial consumer categories. Let's take a look at what the NPD report failed to count in more detail, and highlight how unreliable the report's boisterous claim is.

Tablets: Just before Thanksgiving, NPD DisplaySearch itself released a report trumpeting that tablet sales would overtake notebook sales on Black Friday, then continue to stubbornly hold on to that lead for the foreseeable future. The data the NPD group released today does say that Android tablet sales increased 177 percent compared to last year -- but the report doesn't count sales of the Kindle Fire, iPad or Microsoft Surface tablet, a.k.a. the best-selling Android, iOS and Windows 8 slates.

How can you paint an accurate picture of overall tablet sales if you don't count the top models in the three top ecosystems? NPD's data comes from retail point of sale information. Amazon, Apple and Microsoft likely don't share sales information with the research group, so it's not surprising to see them excluded from the roundup. However, it's disingenuous to claim that tablets will be a big seller this holiday season, then claim disappointing sales while not even mentioning the stars of the slate world. For example, this morning Sterne Agee analyst Shaw Wu sent out an investor's note claiming that iPad mini demand is exceeding Apple's expectations.

Video games: Gaming is a huge driver in consumer electronics, and tons of stores were offering steep discounts on games and gaming consoles alike this Black Friday. Microsoft sold more than 750,000 Xbox 360 consoles and reported a 50 percent increase in Xbox Live Gold subscription card sales; Sony sold 525,000 PlayStation 3 consoles; and the Wii U's initial batch of 400,000 units sold out completely. Microsoft's sales numbers were down a bit compared to last year's record-setting Black Friday run, but to exclude this class of electronics entirely skews the NPD's numbers by what I imagine to be a significant margin.

Mobile phones: As with video games, several retailers were offering outstanding phones sales this Black Friday. Phones no doubt sold in droves; people were actually fist-fighting in Walmart over low-cost handsets. (See video below.) Today, IDC -- another research firm -- released a report claiming that a record number of phone sales are expected over the holiday season.

We went through NPD's 2011 Black Friday press releases to see if the same products were excluded from last year's tallies, but couldn't find a disclaimer saying as much. We did, however, find this recent post on the NPD blog, which claims that consumer electronics were the second most popular sellers on Black Friday, trailing only clothing.

That's not to say the new NPD report is useless; far from it. In fact, for products that sell mainly through big-box retailers -- such as HDTVs, cameras and home audio equipment -- the NPD data is likely a pretty accurate indicator of the lay of the land. Smartphones, tablets and games are three of the most popular consumer electronics of 2012, however, and it's not accurate to claim that overall consumer electronic sales are down without counting the biggest hits of the shopping season.