December 31, 2003, 12:00 AM

Doing the math

Calculating the amount of retail sales that take place online isn’t as simple as it looks. Different cuts of the data reveal some startling trends.

How much retail takes place online? The Census Bureau of the U.S. Department of Commerce reports that in the first half of this year, online sales totaled $24.4 billion. That number varies by $3.4 billion, or 16%, from the $21 billion that comScore Networks Inc. reported.

And what proportion of all shopping does online shopping represent? According to the Commerce Department, online sales were 1.5% of all retail sales excluding food service in the first three quarters of this year, more than double the 0.7% that the Commerce Department calculated in Q4 1999, the first time it started breaking out e-commerce numbers for retailing.

Impressive numbers-except they don’t tell the whole story. For one thing, the percentage that shows e-commerce as a proportion of all retail sales understates e-commerce’s influence significantly. And the online retail sales that both the Commerce Department and comScore report don’t include what could be considered retail sales at

EBay began life as a garage sale site for consumers to unload stuff they didn’t want any more. But it didn’t take long for smart entrepreneurs to figure out they could buy wholesale and sell it on eBay for a profit-and make a living at it. Others quickly learned they could do the same with surplus or liquidated merchandise.

In 2003, eBay had estimated gross merchandise sales, as it calls the sum of all sales and auctions at its site, of $23.2 billion, compared to $14.8 billion in 2002. “If they were a retailer, eBay would be growing faster than anyone else,” says Scott Wingo, president of ChannelAdvisor Corp., which provides software and systems to help companies sell on eBay.

While many people still think of eBay as an online flea market, the channel has been transformed in the past three years as eBay has made an effort to become attractive to brand name manufacturers and retailers looking for another outlet for merchandise or looking for a liquidation channel for returned or outmoded goods.

Consequently, the amount of sales that take place on eBay that could be considered retail is significant. EBay itself claims not to know how much of the sales at are substitutes for purchases at retail outlets. But as part of keeping in touch with the pulse of its potential market, ChannelAdvisor periodically surveys sellers on eBay to determine who are the ones simply getting rid of junk from their attics and who are actually making a living at selling on eBay. The answer: Quite a few are making a living at it.

Wingo breaks down 2003 eBay sales as follows: Gross merchandise sales reached about $23.2 billion. Of that amount, about a third, or $7.6 billion, were overseas sales. Another roughly $4.3 billion were automotive sales. Assuming that those sales do not represent retail sales that could have occurred elsewhere, that leaves $11.25 billion in merchandise sales. ChannelAdvisor estimates that sellers made a living in 2003 from the sale of $3.85 billion worth of merchandise.

Wingo estimates that sellers who account for the $3.85 billion in gross merchandise sales take in at least $20,000 a month. With a net margin of 10%, that translates into income of $2,000 a month.

The bottom line: Based on ChannelAdvisor’s surveys, the Commerce Department and comScore are missing $4 billion a year in online retail sales. Most researchers are projecting online sales this year of $55 billion, excluding event tickets and travel. But the real number could be closer to $59 billion. If sellers who work part time at selling on eBay are taken into account, the number goes even higher. It’s simply a matter of where to draw the line.

Wingo says he sees no end to the growth of eBay. And in fact, he expects the proportion of eBay sales that represents retail to continue to grow. In just two years, that proportion has grown from 20% of gross merchandise sales excluding international and autos, to 40%; from $417 million in Q1 of 2002 to $1.14 billion in Q4 of 2003. “The mix of sellers is changing from the garage sale and small businesses to the big guys,” he says. “And the big guys will become a huge factor.”

The right proportion

Just adding eBay retail sales to the Q3 online retail numbers would hike the proportion of all retail sales that take place online, from the 1.5% that the Commerce Department reports to 1.65%. But even that doesn’t tell the whole story.

In figuring the percentages, the Commerce Department takes the total retail sales number minus food service, which it rightly determines is not likely to move to the Internet-$2.5 trillion for the first nine months of 2003-and divides it by the e-retail number, $37.68 billion for that period, to come up with a proportion of 1.51%. But even taking out food service sales, the Commerce Department is still counting many offline sales that are unlikely to take place online. Those Commerce Department categories include automobile and other motor vehicle dealers, gasoline stations and fuel dealers. (The Commerce Department collects automobile online sales but reports them in the automotive category, not e-commerce.)

Subtracting those categories from the total leaves $1.65 trillion in retail sales that could plausibly take place over the Internet for the first nine months of 2003. The proportion of online sales shoots up to 2.28%. Adding eBay retail sales of approximately $2.71 billion in the first nine months of 2003 takes the proportion to 2.38%. So, online retail sales as a proportion of retail sales that could take place online could be 60% higher than the proportion that the Commerce Department reports.

The proportion changes, however, when it is calculated on the basis of the comScore numbers. ComScore reports online retail sales for the first half of the year at $21 billion. That number is 1.95% of $1.07 trillion in first half retail sales exclusive of food service, autos, fuel and gas station sales. Adding eBay’s $1.74 billion to comScore’s $21 billion gives a proportion of online sales to total sales of 2.11%.

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