November 25, 2013, 4:06 PM

Holiday shoppers flock to retail web sites

Retail site traffic is 35% higher so far this holiday season, Akamai says.

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Thanksgiving may still be three days away, but consumers are already getting into virtual shopping mode. Early this afternoon, North American consumers were viewing 4.84 million retail web pages each minute—more than double the number of retail pages viewed on an average day, according to the Net Usage Index from content delivery network Akamai Technologies.

Compared with midday on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving last year, consumers are viewing roughly 35% more pages on average of retail web sites, says Margaret Kuchler, director of industry marketing for e-commerce at Akamai. (Because many retailers tested their sites’ page-loading capacity on the corresponding Monday of last year, a direct comparison would be inaccurate, Akamai says.) “If we’re already seeing a 35% change over the midday peak from last year, I’m expecting an even bigger peak tonight,” she adds, noting that retail site traffic throughout the holidays tends to peak daily around 9 p.m. Eastern.

The Net Usage Index measures the millions of page views per minute on each of the hundreds of companies across multiple industries for which Akamai serves content, including 167 retailers in Internet Retailer’s Top 500 Guide. For 30 retailers, the vendor this year has also begun tracking mobile traffic during the holidays.

So far this month, just over 30% of retail site traffic in the index has come from mobile devices, Kuchler says. Within that traffic, iPad page views are spiking several times in the night, while traffic from smartphones remains steady from about midday onward, she says. While Akamai did not track that last year, IBM Corp. reported that  about 24% of traffic to its retailer clients during the 2012 holiday season came from smartphones and tablets.

“The later Thanksgiving and earlier Hanukkah this year are definitely starting to influence the shopping season,” Kuchler says. “The shorter holiday shopping period might fuel more online shopping because people have less time to go to brick-and-mortar stores.” Thanksgiving falls this year on the latest possible date, Nov. 28, and Hanukkah begins unusually early this year, on this Wednesday evening, Nov. 27.

Some e-retailers are responding to the growing number of online shoppers by changing their web prices more frequently in order to compete for early shoppers more effectively. Sears Holdings Corp. has been the most volatile in the past two weeks, as the retailer updated prices on 80% of its online inventory, according to a report released today by price monitoring company 360pi Corp.

360pi tracked prices on the web sites of 14 retailers: Sears, No. 6 in the 2013 Top 500 Guide; Amazon, No. 1; Best Buy Co., No. 10; Walmart.com, No. 4; Target Corp., No. 18; Costco Wholesale Corp., No. 16; The Home Depot Inc., No. 46; Overstock.com Inc., No. 31; Newegg Inc., No. 14; Lowe’s Cos. Inc., No. 44; Buy.com, which is now Rakuten.com Shopping, No. 40; hhgregg Appliances Inc., No. 469; Staples Inc., No. 2; and Toys ‘R’ Us Inc., No. 30.

Despite Sears’ frequent re-pricing maneuvers, however, the retailer today beat the web prices of Amazon.com Inc. in only one of the nine categories 360pi examined: action and toy figures, which Sears listed for 6.9% cheaper on average than Amazon, the report says. Amazon had the lowest prices in all other categories except power drills at Home Depot (which beat Amazon’s prices by 10%), TVs at Costco (which were 2.6% cheaper) and coffee makers at Walmart.com (6.7% cheaper).  Amazon and Walmart.com have each changed the prices for about 40% of their online catalogs in the last two weeks, tying for second place in terms of being most aggressive in adjusting online prices after Sears, 360pi says.

The pricing competition is likely to heat up even more this week. On Saturday, Amazon began releasing new Black Friday deals every 10 minutes. Sears also began offering Black Friday deals on the web this weekend, and Walmart.com has said it will do so on Thanksgiving Day.

Pharmacy chain CVS Caremark Corp. will launch holiday deals online and in stores starting on Thanksgiving, too, it says, and its Facebook fans will be able to preview the deals and enter to win a $500 gift card on the social network one day in advance. Meanwhile, apparel retailer Lands’ End will be releasing online holiday deals daily for six days staring on Wednesday, with an additional 30% off web purchases in that period and extra online deals on both Black Friday and Cyber Monday, it says. Flash-sale retailer Gilt Groupe Inc. also says it will be launching door-buster sales on Wednesday, starting at 9 p.m. Eastern.

Shoppers are taking note of the aggressive promotions: 72% of consumers in a survey by comparison shopping site PriceGrabber say they believe retailers give better discounts during the Thanksgiving shopping week than throughout the rest of the holidays. Nearly half of the respondents (48%) also say they plan to use a mobile device while shopping over the extended Thanksgiving weekend. PriceGrabber surveyed 3,473 U.S. adults online between Nov. 6 and Nov. 15.

Along with trying to woo shoppers with low prices, retailers are upping the ante with free and fast shipping deals. E-marketplace eBay Inc.’s same-day delivery service eBay Now is offering free shipping on all orders placed from today until Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, according to a spokesman for the retailer. The service is available in the San Francisco Bay Area, San Jose, New York and Chicago today, with an expansion into Dallas expected by the year’s end.

Amazon, which offers free, two-day shipping on most orders for members of its Prime program, has announced that shoppers for the first time this year may purchase Prime memberships as gifts. Prime costs $79 per year and also allows members free access to stream movies and TV shows via Prime Instant Video and to borrow e-books through the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library.

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