November 23, 2012, 2:11 PM

Black Friday brings a 20.7% sales bump for e-retailers

More shoppers made purchases with their mobile devices than last year.

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E-retailers enjoyed a robust Black Friday, with online sales increasing 20.7% over last year, according to IBM's final report on full-day sales Friday. 

Online consumers—who spent 17% more on Thanksgiving than in 2011—are shopping more often via mobile devices. IBM says that 24% of traffic to retail sites on Black Friday came from smartphones or tablets, up from 14.3% last year. Consumers using mobile devices accounted for 16% of  purchases, up from 9.8% last year. Consumers using iPad tablet computers converted at a 4.3% rate, higher than the rate for other mobile devices, IBM says.

For the full day Friday, IBM says 0.34% of the day’s online sales came from social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, down 35% from Black Friday last year. That compares with 0.63% on Thanksgiving—a rate that increased as the day progressed, says IBM, which bases its findings on the online retail activity of 500 merchants.

The relatively low rate of sales from social media stemmed in part from retailers using Facebook and Twitter not to sell products directly but to promote in-store sales and generally reach out to consumers, says Jay Henderson, strategy program director for IBM. For instance, retail chain Best Buy Co., No. 11 in the Internet Retailer Top 500 Guide, used a Twitter campaign anchored by the #InLineAtBestBuy hashtag on Thursday and Friday. Consumers standing in line at stores for Black Friday openings, and who used the hashtag in their Twitter messages, could win a variety of prizes that included meeting pop singer Rihanna and receiving gift cards.  

“Best Buy was keeping consumers engaged and happy and entertained while they were queued up at stores,” Henderson says.

Black Friday started strong for eBags.com Inc., No. 103 in the Internet Retailer Top 500 Guide. As of 3 p.m. Eastern, sales had increased 21.8% compared with the same day in 2011, says Peter Cobb, the merchant’s co-founder and executive vice president. The strongest sales hour today was between noon and 1 p.m. Eastern time, which is lunch hour for many shoppers.  He credits several factors for the Black Friday gains in 2012: A site reorganization that made deals easier to find, along with the particular timing for one of the year’s most anticipated shopping days.  

“We think this is a positive sign of getting Hurricane Sandy and the elections behind us and ‘retail therapy’ coming into play,” he says. “There was some retail softness across the board in October and early November and the hope was that shoppers would kick off their holiday shopping this Cyber Weekend. That seems to be the case, at least for eBags.com.”

Meanwhile, visits to North American retail sites were holding strong Friday afternoon, though they had dipped from record levels experienced on Thanksgiving night, according to Akamai Technologies Inc., which operates a global network of servers designed to make web pages load faster. The peak on Friday occurred at about 10:20 am Eastern, when consumers were viewing  7.53 million retail web pages per minute for the vendor’s retail clients. On Thursday night, Akamai reported a peak of about 7.63 million page views per minute at 8:55 p.m.

By 5:40 p.m. Eastern on Friday, the level had dipped to about 5.70 million page views per minute. “Black Friday tends to drive much higher peaks earlier in the day because of research activity for offline shopping in the morning hours,” says  Lelah Manz, Akamai’s chief strategist, commerce. She adds that traffic rates should remain steady through the day in part because consumers with mobile devices will check them while shopping in stores.

Sales on Amazon and eBay continued strong Friday for clients of ChannelAdvisor Corp., whose marketing technology helps retailers sell through online marketplaces, comparison shopping sites and search marketing. As of 2 p.m. Eastern on Friday, Amazon sales for ChannelAdvisor retail clients were up 46.2% over the Friday after Thanksgiving last year, while eBay sales were up 16.2%. Sales through comparison shopping engines were down 6.7% and from search engines down 7.6%.

Even with so many consumers ready to shop on Friday, at least one e-retailer decided the best way to market Black Friday was to not participate in the marketing hoopla. Everlane.com, a web-only retailer that sells designer clothes for men and women, says it shut down its e-commerce site on Friday “in protest of Black Friday and the mass consumerism associated with the holiday.” According to founder Michael Preysman, “We appreciate the importance of holiday shopping, but feel that the excess around Black Friday has shifted to a focus on quantity over quality. We believe there is too much noise. If we can help contribute in reducing that noise, we've helped move the world forward.”

Another type of anti-Black Friday action—strikes and protests by Wal-Mart Stores Inc. employees displeased about the chain’s stores opening on Thanksgiving night—hit 26 stores on Thursday night, the retail chain says. Groups involved with the protest, however, said that protests had taken place in at least 100 cities.

Black Friday also brought data releases that further showed the importance of Thanksgiving Day to online retailing. At least 83% of major online retailers sent e-mail marketing messages to consumers Thursday, a record, says Chad White, research director of e-mail service provider Responsys. Last year, 75% of retailers sent such messages. “With more retailers than ever releasing their Black Friday deals early, Thanksgiving Day has been solidified as the new unofficial kickoff of the holiday season,” he says, adding that he expects the record to fall today and on Cyber Monday—the first workday after Thanksgiving.

E-retail sales increased 32% year over year on Thanksgiving Day for clients of Mercent Corp., which helps retailers sell online through marketplaces and comparison shopping engines, says CEO Eric Best. 

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