Post-Election Shopping: What Amazon Tells Us That Polls Can’t

Political polls are often wrong, but only when they go dramatically off-base do people tend to notice: Exhibit A is the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election. In fact, we dug into the 7 deadly data sins of that election to unpack all of the reasons why we shouldn’t have been caught off guard.

One of those deadly sins is that pollsters talk to human beings — and humans sometimes aren’t entirely honest with pollsters about their intentions. It’s not always malicious – people just forget or sometimes don’t fully understand the question.

Although people may present their own version of alternative facts to a pollster, there is one place where the real from the alternative facts can be clearly unassailed: the shopping cart. Consumers may not always admit to another human being what they are buying, but their favorite retailer’s shopping cart knows best.

Which turns out to be pretty instructive about what consumers are thinking about the state of American politics.

Alternative Facts Cause A Surge In The Sales Of 1984

Trump advisor and human meme generator Kellyanne Conway managed to catch all of America in a common moment of incredulity this week when she created the phrase that may very well define the rest of the year: alternative facts.

Now in fairness to Conway, in the context in which she used the phrase, it seems she might have simply meant to say “contrary evidence” — but some phrases are simply an instant classic the moment they’re uttered, and “alternative facts” is one of them.

The people memed, Tweeted and Facebooked. Lindsey Graham even got in on the act.

And then, it seems, a lot of people had the idea that they’d heard something like “alternative facts” before …

Thus, during this week came the announcement that publishing house Penguin is printing more copies of George Orwell’s dystopian classic 1984 in response to a sudden surge of demand.

Apparently, “alternative facts” sounded just enough like “newspeak” that the book suddenly appeared on Amazon’s computer-generated list of bestselling books as of Monday and climbed to the number two spot by Tuesday morning and to the number one spot by Tuesday afternoon..

And apparently it’s feeling pretty dystopic out there to people, as It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis and Brave New World also popped up on the bestseller list this week.

Now, in fairness to team Trump, 1984 does have a spike in popularity every few years, usually when the government does something unpopular. The last big pickup was in 2013 when the Snowden leaks came to light.

However, it is also worth noting what bumped 1984: Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance.

This book is often recommended as the basic 2017 primer on understanding the Trump win in formerly blue states such as Michigan and Wisconsin.

Vance, incidentally, will be one of many special guests doing fireside chats this year at the PYMNTS Innovation Project, but tickets will only be available for so long.

So Trump got American reading again — albeit some very, very dark books.

But at least they weren’t buying bullets.

Barack Obama: The Gun Sales Surge And The National Ammunition Shortage

The causes of the spike in gun sales in the aftermath of the election of former President Barack Obama are highly debated. On the left, the favored theory is that terror due to the election of an African-American caused gun-enthused Americans to arm themselves to the teeth. On the right, the favored theory is that concerned that there was a liberal democrat in office, gun enthusiasts moved to stock up on weapons and ammo before the Second Amendment was formally repealed.

And while one can debate the reasoning, what no one can deny is what happened. When Barack Obama took office in 2009, it became bullet-buying time in America.

According to FBI figures for the week of Nov. 3 to 9, the bureau received more than 374,000 requests for background checks on gun purchasers — a nearly 49 percent increase over the same period in 2007.

“I have been in business for 12 years, and I was here for Y2K, September 11, Katrina,” one Virginia gun shop owner told CNN in 2008 a week after the election, as a steady stream of customers browsed what remained of his stock. “And all of those were big events, and we did notice a spike in business, but nothing [compared to] the order of what we are seeing right now.”

And this, we should note, was not a temporary spike in sales. People literally bought so much ammunition that they caused a national bullet shortage. That lasted for two years between 2008 and 2010, with a brief pause before starting up again between 2012 and 2013. Specifically at issue was the shortage of small-arms ammunition of handguns.

So if the recent sellout of 1984 books carries on until the midterm elections, we’ll be a bit more impressed.

George W. Bush And The Canned Food Rush

While many today are bemoaning the state of American democracy and wailing about how the nation’s systems are in mortal peril, readers with a memory that spans more than 17 years are likely comforted by the knowledge that at about this time in 2001, there was a large and loud contingent of Americans who were similarly sure that George W. Bush’s election to the presidency — and the Supreme Court battle that ensued — were sure signs of the end of democratic days.

However, there is good news, because in the intervening nearly two-decades-long span, democracy has survived and possibly even thrive despite some pretty serious financial headwinds from time to time.

But it seems that in late 1999 consumers were somewhat less sure of that outcome — in fact, given the spike in the sale of canned foods during the last quarter of the year, the natural assumption might be that the majority of Americans weren’t sure if human civilization was going to hold out.

But we should note, there is a big, big asterisk with this one.

1999 was also the year of Y2K — and the year of an increasing fear that perhaps all of the U.S.’ computers were going to fail at the stroke of midnight during the year 2000 because of a glitch that would cause them to think it was the year 1900.

While most normal people didn’t exactly understand why a computer getting the year wrong was going to be the end of civilization, after six months of news coverage, Americans were all pretty sure it was going to be the apocalypse.

So, while George W. Bush’s election  — and all the controversy that came with it — happened at roughly the same time as the canned goods spike, we are comfortable guessing that it was more a coincidence than a cause.

But Americans deciding that they want to spend this weekend reading 1984?

Kellyanne Conway definitely deserves the credit for that one.



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