December 26, 2012, 6:02 PM

Mixed messages on holiday sales

Chase Paymentech and MasterCard give differing estimates of holiday sales growth.

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Online holiday sales rose 15.2% year over year, according to the Chase Holiday Pulse, which aggregates payment data from 50 of payment processor Chase Paymentech's largest U.S. web merchants. For the holiday season, which Chase considered Oct. 29 to Dec. 25, online retailers had a 24.3% jump in transaction volume, the company says.

The Chase data complements a report released earlier this week by web measurement firm comScore Inc., which noted that a strong final week of the holiday season put overall 2012 holiday season sales up by 16.2% over the 2011 season. ComScore bases its data on the actual web activity and purchasing from a subset of some 1 million U.S. online consumers.

Another report released Dec. 26 from payments card company MasterCard, however, notes that holiday season online sales rose by a relatively small 8.4% between Oct. 28 and Dec. 22 compared with the same period a year earlier, as sales activity took a hit from power outages in the last few days of October and the first half of November in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast regions related to Hurricane Sandy.

Nonetheless, MasterCard—which bases its estimates on aggregate U.S. online retail sales transactions among more than 60,000 merchants in the MasterCard payment card network—notes that online retail spending rose by double-digit percentage increases during the last two weeks of November, and recorded 19 days when sales “easily cleared the $1 billion mark.” It notes that the peak online spending day of the season was Nov. 27, the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, with close to $1.5 billion in online sales, and that several peak spending days occurred between Dec. 10 and 14, when consumers spent an estimated $6.9 billion online. MasterCard adds that specialty apparel and consumer electronics showed particularly strong online sales during the 2012 holiday season, with each category doing more than 20% of their total sales online.

Store sales, by comparison, were weak, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers and Goldman Sachs Weekly Chain Store Sales Index, which reported today that it estimates combined November and December 2012 store sales to rise 3.0% over the same period of 2011.

Chase Paymentech also notes that retailers saw a pronounced jump in online sales in the days leading up to Christmas. Chase says that on Wednesday, Dec. 19, sales were up 39.8% and the number of transactions rose 56.7%; on Thursday, Dec. 20, sales jumped 61.8% and the number of transactions increased 58.6%; on Friday Dec. 21, sales were up 78.9% and the number of transactions increased 79.6%; on Saturday, Dec. 22, sales jumped 108.9% and the number of transactions increased 60.7%; and on Sunday Dec. 23, sales rose 124.0% and transaction volume rose 34.9%.

Behind the sharp rise in online sales close to Christmas was retailers offering later cutoff dates for guaranteed Christmas Eve delivery, including several offering free shipping with a Dec. 24 guaranteed delivery date, a Chase spokesman says. Christmas also fell on a Tuesday, which led more retailers to offer delivery by Dec. 24 than a year ago, when Christmas fell on a Sunday and many guaranteed delivery by Dec. 22 or 23. “People may also have taken advantage of last-minute deals that were being offered online,” he says.

Here are a few other findings from the report:

● Retailers offering incentives in the days after the Monday following Thanksgiving, which is often called Cyber Monday, helped transform Cyber Monday into Cyber Week, the spokesman says. From Nov. 23, which was Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, through Friday, Nov. 30, sales increased 22.5% year over year and transactions jumped 32.7%.

● Dec. 10, which some marketers dubbed Green Monday to attract consumer attention to what is typically one of the busiest online shopping days of the year, kicked off the busiest week of the season, in terms of the number of online transactions. The number of transactions over the seven-day period jumped 16.6% compared with the corresponding week in 2011.

While sales rose, Chase found that retailers’ average order value fell 7.3%, thanks largely to retailers offering lower thresholds to reach free shipping and a rise in the number of consumers purchasing lower-priced digital content, such as e-books, digital music, online games and applications, the spokesman says.

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