retail news in context, analysis with attitude

Bloomberg reports this morning that "online shoppers outnumbered their brick-and-mortar counterparts during U.S. retailers’ pivotal Black Friday weekend, underscoring the challenges facing American malls this holiday season as Amazon.com Inc. exerts more pressure."

The numbers, as reported by the National Retail Federation (NRF), are specific. More than 103 million people shopped online during the just-passed four-day Thanksgiving weekend, while fewer than 102 million people ventured into the nation's bricks-and-mortar stores. The research firm ComScore said in a report that "e-commerce sales jump 9 percent on Thanksgiving and 10 percent the following day," Bloomberg reports.

"The shift online has been a mixed blessing for the retail industry," Bloomberg writes. "While it’s given companies one more way to reach consumers, a slowdown in mall traffic has hurt results at department stores and apparel chains. Many retailers also have struggled to match the online dexterity of Amazon. Neiman Marcus Group Inc., for instance, suffered Web outages on Friday and Saturday, leaving customers frustrated." And the Wall Street Journal reports that Walmart said that high demand slowed down its online checkout process over the weekend.

The story notes that "the growth of e-commerce - including people using their smartphones to buy gifts - helped boost the total number of U.S. shoppers to more than 151 million over the weekend, according to the NRF. That figure, which accounts for the overlap between online and offline buyers, topped the 136 million that the trade group had predicted."

NRF CEO Matthew Shay tells the New York Times that "shoppers are taking advantage of a deluge of sales and promotions to shop when they want, and how they want ... Retailers, in turn, are scrambling to offer sales earlier each year, both in stores and online ... Meanwhile, there is 'a broad and deep expectation' among shoppers that sales and promotions will continue far beyond Black Friday, and less of an imperative to spend over the weekend."

The question now, the Bloomberg story suggests, is how the increase in online shopping over the weekend - apparently at the expense of traditional stores - will impact so-called Cyber Monday sales today. "The term Cyber Monday was coined a decade ago, when retailers noticed a spike in online holiday shopping on the Monday after Thanksgiving," Bloomberg writes. "The reason: Many people returned to work and used their office’s high-speed Internet connection to shop. These days, most Americans have broadband, decreasing the event’s relevance. The NRF predicts 121 million people will shop online Monday, fewer than 126.9 million who planned to do so last year."
KC's View:
What amazes me in in some of the coverage is the suggestion that some retail executives and pundits found this shift to be a surprise.

For example, Fortune at one point wrote over the weekend that "integrating stores and e-commerce is key, top execs say."

Y'think?

Not everybody is surprised. Advertising Age reports that while "Walmart still has more than five times Amazon's sales overall," consumer survey data from the Advertising Benchmark Index suggests that "the e-commerce giant is poised to edge out earth's biggest retailer in holiday sales this year" ... The survey also found people plan to spend around 60% of their holiday dollars offline and 40% online, and pick up around 14% of those online purchases in stores rather than have them shipped."

Rather than looking at what just happened this weekend, and what will happen today, I think it is important to look at the broader trend. Black Friday and Cyber Monday increasingly are marketing constructs imposed by businesses upon the calendar, but less and less relevant to shoppers, who are going to make up their own rules.

I also know this, though I am cognizant that it would be an enormous mistake to look at my own shopping habits as reflective of the general public's. I've done a fair percentage of our Christmas shopping, and most of it has been online. And I expect that this will be my personal trend going forward for the next few weeks.