November 30, 2009, 12:00 AM

Thanksgiving weekend sales and traffic spike for many web retailers

Online traffic and sales rose sharply for a number of retailers over the holiday weekend, with some reporting year-over-year sales increases of 50% or more.

Online traffic and sales spiked for a number of retailers over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, with some setting records and several reporting year-over-year sales increases of 50% or more.

QVC.com reported its largest Black Friday sales day with more than $32 million in orders. Overstock said Friday was its largest day ever, and Buy.com noted Friday marked its second biggest day after the Monday after Thanksgiving 2008. Buy.com, No. 33 (a PDF version of each company’s financial and operating profile can be ordered by clicking on its name).

Retailers cited strong online marketing programs and shoppers’ hunger for finding good deals on the web as crucial to their vibrant start to the holiday shopping season.

Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving and so-named because it’s when many retailers begin turning a profit for the year, produced a 48.5% year-over-year spike in traffic on Buy.com, No. 93 in the Top 500 Guide, pushing sales up 71.1%, says Peter Cobb, co-founder and senior vice president of marketing.

“It points to shoppers getting out there and shopping online earlier this year,” he says. “It’s always been the case with online retail that it’s lagged a little behind bricks-and-mortar stores. But this year it’s been our job to incent them to shop earlier online.”

At eBags, Cobb did just that by offering 650 specially priced offers, in many cases passing along good prices from manufacturers, who were increasingly willing to offer deals, he says. A year ago, the site only had 50 such deals, he adds.

Brian Zucker, co-owner of Buy.com, which sells on the web at KLWines.com and is No. 356 in the Top 500 Guide, is following a similar strategy. “Continuing the trend we’ve noticed for the past several months, shoppers are out and taking advantage of deals throughout all sales channels,” he says, noting that weekend web sales rose 11% year over year as the number of site visitors rose 25%. “The primary driver we’re seeing is suppliers’ willingness to sharpen the pencil and offer compelling deals that we’re able to pass along to our customers. Wineries and suppliers that are willing to get aggressive in dropping prices are seeing huge interest from our customers, while those that wait for the old days to return are going to continue to see their warehouses fill up with unsold vintages.”

Other retailers, such as Buy.com, No. 128 in the Top 500 Guide and a unit of PFSweb Inc., shifted their approach this year to deals that not only attracted shoppers to the site, but that were also more profitable. “Last year we focused on big attention-getters, like netbook computers, and we ended up doing a lot of work for not a lot of money,” says PFSweb CEO and chairman Mark Layton.

In contrast, this year eCost focused more on promoting products on which it could realize better profit margins, he adds. Although the retailer’s revenue was down about 15% over the weekend, gross profits were up 20%. “By selecting products that were a better overall fit for us, we were able to make our business work without raising prices,” Layton says. “We are trying to create a business that can show solid profitability.”

Competitive pricing and the right mix of products are proving more important than ever among smart shoppers this holiday season, retailers say. “Like other retailers, we are seeing that savvy online shoppers are in search of the very best deals and have conducted a great deal of research, more so than last year,” says Niraj Shah, CEO of Buy.com, an online retailer of home furnishings through hundreds of niche web sites. “That said, once the customers find the items they want at a great price, they’re buying them.”

Shah adds that CSN has become more aggressive in marketing. “We have spent the past year generating more helpful deals and exciting consumer promotions than ever,” he says. “We’re seeing that fun, highly interactive contests and sweepstakes are real favorites among CSN Stores’ customers, especially promotions that tap many kinds of social media. We’re planning to continue more of these promotions next year, as well.”

At retail chain Buy.com, which operates 287 stores in addition to AmericanApparel.com, online shoppers appeared to do less browsing than usual, as the retailer realized a 10% increase in online orders over the weekend along with a 30% hike in the number of unique web site visitors, says web director Raz Schionning.

“People who are coming to the site to shop tend to know what they want this season,” he says, adding that American Apparel has beefed up marketing to regular customers this year.

QVC, whose $32 million in Black Friday orders were up 60% year over year, attributed the rise largely to a special promotional program that kicked off on Thanksgiving evening with steep price discounts in an easy-to-shop environment, the retailer says. "Our merchandising team worked incredibly hard to find the most special gift-giving ideas on the market and price them competitively,” says Mike George, president and CEO.

At Buy.com, merchandising and marketing efforts helped push up Black Friday sales of jewelry by 73% over the same day last year, the web-only retailer says. It adds that apparel sales rose 68%, home and outdoor furnishings and supplies, 58%, and videos, 54%.

Other retailers were looking ahead to the Monday after Thanksgiving, or Cyber Monday, to kick of their holiday says. “I believe many consumers were going back to malls over the weekend or waiting for Cyber Monday,” says Howard Wyner, CEO of Buy.com, a fragrance retailer which is No. 384 in the Top 500 Guide. “Our Cyber Monday sales are exceeding our estimates and expect to be a historic day order volume-wise”

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