Thursday, 28 October 2010
Harvard confused over Mrs Obama’s effect on fashion sales
Harvard University seems to have gone into the business of understanding what stimulates apparel sales. And got it extraordinarily wrong.
David Yermack, a finance professor at New York University 's Stern School, has published an article in the Harvard Business Review (HBR) demonstrating that clothing companies whose garments Michelle Obama wore at public meetings between November 2008 and December 2009 saw their share price rise almost immediately. Which much of the world's press has interpreted as showing that Mrs Obama is remarkably effective at selling clothes.
Now that's absolutely not what Professor Yermack has found. He's concerned with the reaction of share buyers – not with whether anyone actually bought any frocks on the basis of Mrs Obama's wardrobe choices. But such academic precision doesn't get the HBR's articles quoted in ordinary newspapers. So Harvard's publicists have decided to invent a few ideas Professor Yermack hasn't had. Like "Consumers flock to the stores, and even if they don't buy what she wears, they often leave with something else." or "The First Lady's astonishing influence may be tied to the fact that consumers know she's not paid to wear what she does"
These claims are the absolute opposite of the truth: between November 2008 and December 2009, those companies whose garments Mrs Obama wore and who published their monthly sales data all saw consistent year-on year, like for like, declines. Unlike TJ Maxx, The Buckle and Ross Stores, whose garments Mrs Obama didn't wear, but whose sales consistently increased. Mrs Obama's tacit endorsement of a clothing range impressed Wall St – but seems to have had limited impact on Main Street. And Professor Yermack never said anything about Main Street's reaction to Mrs Obama
So why are the HBR PR people putting downright untruths into the mouths of its contributors? We think it's because the article's to do with fashion. Serious universities don't usually go round inventing untruths – but heck, it's only fashion and no-one in the apparel industry reads long articles, do they?
A point worth considering if you're looking for serious strategic advice about an apparel or textile business. Harvard's the last place to look if you want soundly-based consultancy. Getting headlines matters a lot more in Cambridge, Massachusetts than rigorous analysis