December 9, 2011, 12:49 PM

Watching margins, but capturing sales

After a “cyber week” packed with discounts, e-retailers used a variety of promotions.

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E-retailers used a variety of promotion and discounting strategies to generate sales this week.

Consumers continued to shop hard online this week even as e-retailers eased off on discounts, showing that the money-saving deals e-retailers offered last week didn’t deplete consumers’ demand.

Sales were up 32% for 50 top e-retailers tracked in the Chase Paymentech Cyber Holiday Pulse Index from Sunday through Wednesday this week versus the comparable days a year ago, and transaction volume was up more than 39%. This follows record sales for the week ending Dec. 4 when e-retailers collected $5.8 billion in orders, up 15% from the same week last year, according to comScore Inc.

E-retailers this week ran a variety of holiday promotions, but many backed off steep discounts, instead focusing on service promotions that likely cost them less, like free shipping or a dollar-off promo that kicks in after a consumer’s order reaches a particular price threshold. Lingerie retailer Victoria’s Secret, No. 18 in Internet Retailer’s Top 500 Guide for example, combined both of these elements, offering free shipping on orders of $25 or more, and $25 off an order of $150 or more. Last week, the retailer had the same shipping offer, $15 off an order of $100 or more and a buy one, get one at half-price sale on bras. This week the bras are selling at full price.

Luxury retailer Ralph Lauren (No. 70), meanwhile, is emphasizing its holiday gift guides, free shipping and services like free gift wrap, whereas on the Monday following Thanksgiving it offered a site-wide 25% discount. Neiman-Marcus (No. 39) and Saks Fifth Avenue (No. 38) too are emphasizing holiday gift guides and gift wrap.

Crate & Barrel (No. 55), REI (No. 62), Football Fanatics (No. 98) and Nike (No. 78) all made free shipping their primary offer this week. J.C. Penney (No. 20) made free shipping its lead offer this week but also promoted general discounts for select product categories. 73 of the top 100 retailers in Internet Retailer’s Top 500 Guide offered free shipping in some form this week.  

Other retailers are offering a gift card or credit toward a future purchase with the retailer. Oriental Trading (No. 64), offered a $10 gift card on purchases of $59 or more; L.L. Bean (No. 21) offered a $10 gift card with a purchase of $50 or more. Jewelry retailer Blue Nile (No. 60) is offering free gifts with select purchases, for example free pearl earrings with the purchase of a necklace.

Other retailers are offering staggered discounts, showing consumers that the more they spend the more they can save. Music instrument and gear e-retailer Musician’s Friend (No. 44), for example, this week offered consumer 5% off their orders of $99 or more, 10% off orders of $249 or more and 12% off orders of $549 or more, and free shipping. Home and kitchen goods retailer Williams-Sonoma (No. 25) made a similar offer, offering discounts from 10% on orders of $100 or more to 30% on orders of at least $1,000.

The trend of e-retailers moving the promotional focus away from major price discounts could make for a more profitable sales season, says Ken Burke chairman of e-commerce technology provider MarketLive Inc. “It’s very telling and very indicative of what could be a much more profitable season if we can go through it without e-retailers going too crazy with discounts,” he says. “Right now they are trying to protect margin a bit, but they’re also watching what their competitors are doing to see who blinks first. If one major player in their category starts to slash prices, then they’ll all start doing it.”

Only 11 of the top 100 e-retailers in Internet Retailer’s Top 500 Guide offered a site-wide percentage-off discount this week, ranging from 10%--an offer made by Green Mountain Coffee Roasters—to 50%. The 50% off everything offer kicks in once a consumers spends at least $100 at apparel retailer Spiegel.com, a unit of No. 76-ranked Signature Styles. Other retailers offering site-wide percentage-off discounts, some with minimum order value thresholds, include Urban Outfitters (No. 48), 20%; J. Crew (No. 50), 25%; Kohl’s (No. 31), 20%; Macy’s (No. 17), 20%; and Gap (No. 24), 30%.

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