May 13, 2009, 12:00 AM

Mass merchants grew 20% in 2008, says Top 500 Guide data

Mass merchants grew web sales by 20% last year, from $29.7 billion in 2007 to $35.5 billion, according to the 2009 Internet Retailer Top 500 Guide. In contrast, last year’s fastest growing category, jewelry, showed only 1% growth.

What a difference a year makes, especially one dominated by a deep economic recession. The fastest-growing market in 2008 was mass merchants, a retail category dominated by Amazon.com and low-price big box merchants such as Walmart.com, Target.com and Sears.com. Overall online sales by mass merchants grew by 20% from $29.7 billion in 2007 to $35.5 billion in 2008, according to the 2009 Internet Retailer Top 500 Guide. In contrast, web retailers in the 2008 edition’s fastest growing category, jewelry, showed only 1% growth from $1.04 billion in 2007 to $1.06 billion in 2008 as luxury purchases crashed in a conservative spending climate.

The fastest growing Top 500 mass merchant was Kohl’s Corp. No. 50 in the Internet Retailer Top 500 Guide, which lifted its 2008 web sales by 58.9% to $356 million from $224 million in 2007, followed by Costco Wholesale Corp. (No. 14) and ShoppersChoice.com LLC (No. 375), which grew their annual e-commerce revenue by 41.7% and 31.7%, respectively. The 800-lb. gorilla in the category was Amazon (No. 1), as usual, with 2008 web sales of $19.17 billion, up by 29.5% from $14.8 billion in 2007. The category and Top 500 leader accounted for almost 54% of all Top 500 mass merchant sales last year. Excluding Amazon, the combined sales of all remaining mass merchants in the category still increased year over year by a healthy 11.2% to $13.66 billion from $12.28 billion.

The most dramatic year-to-year change in any retail category was jewelry. In the 2008 edition of the Top 500 Guide, the combined sales of online jewelry retailers increased about 36% in 2007 from web sales of $772.4 million in 2006. The category leader in 2008 was TheWatchery.com (No. 278), with 57% growth from $19.4 million in 2007 to $30.5 million last year.

Flowers/gifts, also a victim of consumer spending pull-backs, matched the lowest growth rate at 1%. The category leader was Top 500 newcomer GourmetGiftBaskets.com (No. 446), with 2008 web sales of $12 million, up by 173% from $4.4 million in 2007.

After mass merchants, the next three fastest-growing of the 14 merchandising categories in the Top 500 were toys/hobbies, specialty/non-apparel and health/beauty. All exceeded the overall Top 500 retailers’ 11.7% growth rate last year, which increased from $103.69 billion in 2007 to $115.85 billion in 2008.

Toys/hobbies grew to $1.2 billion in 2008 web sales, up by about 19% from $1.0 billion in the prior year. Consumers stayed home in droves in 2008, reflecting high gasoline prices. Many might have kept busy with online video games, as evidenced by the category leader Big Fish Games Inc. (No. 147), which reported 2008 web sales of $83 million, up 73% from $48 million in 2007.

Online retailers serving the specialty/non-apparel and health/beauty markets both recorded 14% growth in 2008, with combined sales of $3.8 billion and $2.9 billion, respectively. The specialty/non-apparel leader was VistaPrint Inc. (No. 44), which used aggressive new product development to grow web sales by 56.6% to $400.7 million in FY 2008 from $256 million in FY 2007.

Vitacost.com Inc. (No. 114) topped health/beauty market web sales with a 46% increase from $86.8 million in 2007 to $126.5 million last year.

All but four categories exceeded the overall e-commerce growth rate of 4.6%, according to the Top 500 Guide. In addition to jewelry and flowers/gifts, the two categories where e-retailers fell short were housewares/home furnishings and office supplies, both registering 2% overall growth.

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