That consumers shifted more of their holiday gift-buying to the web was not new. What was new in the recent holiday season was the emergence of Thanksgiving as the start of the shopping frenzy, a big uptick in mobile shopping and even heavier promotions of free shipping, right into the week before Christmas.
Online sales were up 13% over the 2011 season as of Dec. 16, reported web measurement firm comScore Inc. There were 11 days when e-retail sales exceeded $1 billion, breaking last year's record of 10. "With two extra shopping days between Thanksgiving and Christmas this year, we still expect that the full season will realize a growth rate well north of 13%," said comScore chairman Gian Fulgoni.
Total retail sales increased 4.4% year over year in November, reported the National Retail Federation, which projected total holiday sales would grow 4.1% over 2011.
The shift in shopping to the web stood out in sales data for the Thanksgiving holiday period, from Thanksgiving through the Monday after, a day often called Cyber Monday because of its heavy online sales.
For Thanksgiving and the day after, frequently called Black Friday, MasterCard Advisors, the consulting arm of MasterCard Worldwide, reported total retail sales increased 2.1% to $25.1 billion. But taking out the 29.3% in online growth for those two days that comScore reports, from $1.295 to $1.675 billion, and in-store sales only grew 0.4% to $23.4 billion from $23.3 billion. Over the four-day Thanksgiving weekend, MasterCard says total retail sales increased 2.9% to $50.2 billion. Excluding the 23.0% growth in web sales, per comScore, from $2.326 to $2.862 billion, and store sales for the four-day Thanksgiving weekend increased 1.7% to $47.3 billion.
Shopping began in earnest on Thanksgiving, as such major retail chains as Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Target Corp. and Toys 'R' Us Inc. opened their stores Thanksgiving night, rather than waiting for the early-morning hours of Black Friday. But even before that, retailers were heavily promoting sales early on Thanksgiving.
"We are seeing retailers VERY heavily promoting their early Black Friday (also known as Thanksgiving) deals and offers," Scot Wingo, CEO of online marketing firm ChannelAdvisor Corp. wrote on his blog that day, noting a shift in ad spending to Thanksgiving "that wasn't usually happening in past years."
Also notable was the role of mobile devices. 45% of retailer marketing e-mails were opened on mobile devices for the six-day period around Thanksgiving, says mobile marketing firm Knotice. Mobile devices accounted for 22% of e-retail sales on Cyber Monday, reported Adobe Systems Inc., double the percentage of a year earlier. 25% of online buyers shopped with a mobile device over the Thanksgiving weekend, and 13% of those mobile shoppers used their devices while in stores, according to a survey by Bizrate Insights and Forrester Research Inc.
Promotions continued throughout the holiday season, with free shipping offers being especially prominent on Monday, Dec. 17, which some marketers have dubbed Free Shipping Day. Of 100 major online retailers tracked, 46% of those that e-mailed customers Dec. 17 offered free shipping with no minimum purchase, up from 10% a year earlier, reported Chad White, research director of e-mail marketing company Responsys Inc.
"The free shipping paradigm is definitely undergoing major changes right now," White wrote on his blog. The same can be said for holiday retail strategy.