February 3, 2014, 11:38 AM

E-retail takeaways from the holiday season

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Online prepaid photo scanning e-retailer ScanMyPhotos.com launched an Oct. 21 Cyber Monday event targeting Hanukkah buyers because the holiday falling on Thanksgiving meant the "traditional" Cyber Monday came too late for Hanukkah shoppers to take advantage of, says Mitch Goldstone, president and CEO of ScanMyPhotos.com.

As online retailers make their plans for the 2014 holidays, they can take comfort in one clear fact: shoppers are shifting more of their holiday spending to the web. U.S. consumers purchasing via computers spent at least $46.545 billion with online retailers this holiday season, up nearly 10.1% from $42.286 billion last year, comScore says. Adding in mobile sales, comScore estimates the online shopping increase is about 12% compared to last holiday season, despite the shorter shopping season. That compares to 2.7% growth for bricks-and-mortar retailers in November and December, according to ShopperTrak, which monitors traffic and sales at major malls and retail chains.

Bricks-and-mortar stores were hurt by foot traffic dropping 14.6% compared to the same two months last year, thanks, in part, to severe weather in much of the country during the first two weekends in December, ShopperTrak says. But ShopperTrak also noted the shift to online shopping, saying "foot traffic will continue to slow due to changing consumer patterns—with more shoppers purchasing online or researching products online before heading to stores."

Shoppers are heading online in part because they think they can get better deals on the web. In a study of 1,100 consumers by NPD Group, 31% of respondents said online sites offered better deals, compared to 18% who said stores had better deals (26% of respondents stated both had the same deals). That means 57% of shoppers found deals online to be more attractive or as good as what they could find in bricks-and-mortar stores.

Many of those online deals were purchased via smartphones and tablets, according to retailers. At web-only consignment e-retailer The RealReal Inc., tablet sales grew 200% in December 2013 compared to the same month a year earlier. Average tablet order value also grew 20% year over year and the conversion rate soared 173%.

At Fathead.com, from Thanksgiving Day through Dec. 22, smartphone sales accounted for 13.1% of total sales, up from 6.4% for the same period in 2012. And tablet sales accounted for 14.8% of revenue compared with 11% a year earlier.

Those strong mobile numbers aren't an anomaly. Mobile commerce sales accounted for nearly 21% of total Black Friday digital sales in the United States, $314 million out of $1.512 billion, and nearly 17% of Cyber Monday sales, $350 million out of $2.085 billion, comScore says.

And it may represent a shift in the way consumers shop. "Even on Black Friday, when you'd expect most people to be [shopping] in stores, we saw a huge increase in mobile shopping; more so than on Cyber Monday," says Johnna Marcus, director of mobile and digital store marketing at make-up retailer Sephora USA Inc. "Given the shorter holiday season, mobile is a convenient option, and we see that [shoppers] are becoming more comfortable—going beyond browsing and actually making purchases on mobile devices."

Retailers can learn much from the past holiday shopping season. Sometimes pushing sales until the very last minute doesn't work out so well. Shoppers will procrastinate if they can. Online gift buying is only growing and taking market share from stores. And mobile commerce, now accounting for one-fifth of web sales, can't be an afterthought. The 2013 Christmas season, despite its bumps and bruises, provided two gifts to e-retailers: cold, hard cash and knowledge. In 2014, smart web merchants will use the second to get more of the first.



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