February 12, 2009, 12:00 AM

Many online shoppers ‘just looking’ in January, study shows

The number of January web sessions in which consumers browsed a web site was flat vs. December 2008, says a Coremetrics study. But the number of sessions that led to an order was down by 21% as fewer shoppers took the final step from browsing to buying.

The number of online sessions in which consumers browsed a web site--viewing at least one product page--stayed largely flat compared to December 2008, according to findings from web analytics firm Coremetrics. But the number of sessions in which consumers actually completed an order was down 21% as fewer shoppers made the transition from browser to buyer.

The report, titled Coremetrics Benchmark January 09 Report, found that order sessions were down in all online retail categories except Intimate Apparel and Office Supplies, which reported increases of about 5.5% and about 8%, respectively. Specialty retailers reported a 56% drop in order sessions, the largest decrease of any retail category tracked by Coremetrics, which derives the data from client retailers..

The study revealed a few promising signs from online retailers. For example, compared with December 2008, the average number of items that consumers purchased per order in January 2009 rose by 23% in the online retail category as a whole. And the average dollar value of orders also increased, by 8%. The downside: comparing those same measures to January 2008 shows that the average number of items per order and their average dollar value were down 4.5% and about 5%, respectively.

Home goods retailers enticed fewer shoppers to buy more items for a higher total dollar value, the report says. There was a 26% increase in the average number of items per order in January 2009 compared with December 2008 and an increase of almost 41% in the average dollar value of those orders in that category. But online home goods retailers saw a substantial drop--nearly 49%--in order sessions.

Coremetrics notes that health and beauty retailers continued to show signs of the “little luxuries” effect where consumers in a down economy indulge themselves with inexpensive discretionary purchases. Online health and beauty retailers reported a 5% increase in browsing sessions and an increase of almost 22% in the average number of items per order. However, the average order value decreased by nearly 5%, evidence that consumers in this category were bargain hunting and, if stocking up on more items, spending less money overall.

“Our data suggest that consumers are very nervous about the economy and that an economic recovery fueled in large part by online consumer spending has not happened yet,” says John Squire, chief strategy officer for Coremetrics. “It isn’t all doom and gloom, however. Some categories are actually doing a good job of attracting consumers. And when we look at the average number of items per online order, we see that those consumers who actually decided to buy online bought more items for a higher total dollar amount.”

More than 300 U.S. retailers, representing approximately $15 billion in annual sales, contribute their analytics data to the Benchmark research.

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