Our Cross-Channel Numbers Show ‘Showrooming’ Could Be Overblown

Consumers are now in control, especially when it comes time to buy. Ubiquitous connectivity allows consumers to easily check prices and buy on the go, which should worry (not terrify) traditional retailers in competitive categories. This “showrooming effect,” which has been encouraged by Amazon, would enable web retailers to snatch some sales from the hands of their brick-and-mortar competition. A majority of sales are still happening offline, so the fear of showrooming — that most people are finding screaming deals online — is largely exaggerated. In fact, the majority of transactions still happen in stores, even when shoppers research online (yes, even when they’ve got their mobile devices in hand in a store).  Forrester’s US Cross-Channel Retail Forecast, 2011 To 2016, which launches today makes it clear just how influential and critical the web channel will be to eBusiness professionals in retail. By 2016 Forrester predicts that more than half of the dollars spent in US retail will be influenced by the Web. Already in 2011, $1.3 billion dollars in the US fall into this category.

It is imperative for eBusiness professionals in retail to adopt cross-channel best practices, including:

  • Pricing more consistently to reduce vulnerability to showrooming. The ability of shoppers to comparison-price shop and demand price matches requires retailers (and manufacturers) to reduce price discrepancies across all channels. With comparable pricing in place, this forecast suggests that many consumers may in fact nonetheless choose to purchase products in stores because of the immediate availability, service levels, or simply because products online do not have significant benefit over those in stores. 
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Yet Another Dumb Move By A Bank

Until a few months ago Bank of America won the “Best In Biting The Hand That Feeds You” Award when it initiated its $5 debit card fee increase. Citibank may have trumped that in January when it decided that frequent flier miles that it gave away as promotional bonuses in exchange for getting customers to sign up for a new bank account was taxable income that needed to be reported to the IRS.  The absurdity of this move is so large it’s not even measurable.  Because if they pull this off, they will solidify a position as an anti-customer bank at a time when banks could use some customer love, but worse they threaten to kill the single most effective tactic in the entire marketing industry: the promotion. By giving away a gift in return for a customer’s patronage, and then calling it taxable income, this is the ultimate string attached. Does this mean free ice cream at Ben & Jerry's on their customer appreciation day is taxable? What about upgrades airlines sometimes give for free on flights? Or the eyeglasses that Coastal.com is giving away for free?  Most of the time your social security number isn’t captured, so there isn't an easy means to report any promotion or gift to the IRS, but let’s hope we never get to the day where we do have to give away such information in order to take advantage of a promotion. How anyone at Citi could have thought this was a good idea (and not making very clear the taxation consequences) is baffling. Marketing freebies are aimed at getting new customers or retaining existing

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US Online Retail Hits $200B

eCommerce sales continue to grow rapidly, having topped $200 billion in 2011. As web shopping has been on an upward trajectory for over a decade now, these figures should shock few. We expect online sales will grow from 7% of overall retail sales to close to 9% by 2016. Key drivers of this growth include:

  • Aggressive deals, particularly during Q4. During key time periods in the last holiday season (e.g., Thanksgiving, Cyber Monday), more than 70% of online holiday buyers (in a joint survey with Bizrate Insights) say that they purchased online instead of in stores because deals online were better.

  • Innovative new business models. Among the most rapidly growing business models of the last decade were the flash sales sites, companies like Gilt Groupe and Woot. An earlier study that Forrester conducted with online shoppers showed that the majority of consumers said they spend less at traditional retailers after shopping at these daily deals sites.

  • More online loyalty programs. While over the years physical stores and brands have managed to capture greater shopper data with loyalty programs and private label credit card programs, online retailers such as Amazon.com have essentially created loyalty programs of their own with shipping clubs.  In fact, during the holiday season in 2010, 9% of online buyers said they belonged to such a program, while in 2011 12% of online shoppers affirmed the same (again, a joint survey with Bizrate Insights).

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Google, Amazon, Apple, And Facebook: What eBusiness Executives Need To Know For 2012

Nearly 50% of web shoppers start their research process on Amazon or Google.  Over 40% of the world’s Internet traffic constitutes daily visits to Facebook and Google. Twenty-one percent and 49% of iPhone and iPad owners respectively purchasing products via these devices. Google, Amazon, Apple, and Facebook not only absorb consumer time but are quickly becoming gateways for other eBusiness traffic. This makes the Big Four critical in the product research and sales funnel.  In our recently published report, “Google, Amazon, Apple, And Facebook: What eBusiness Executives Need To Know For 2012” we help eBusiness professionals identify what’s on the horizon for these companies and what it means for them. Some key findings of the report include the following:

  • Google has broad ambitions to support (or displace) incumbent eBusinesses. While Google struggles to move beyond its paid search roots, eBusiness professionals will need to keep the company top of mind because it maintains a majority share of online marketing spend but promises to transform every industry from financial services to travel to health care and retail.
  • Amazon is disrupting retail economics. While Amazon has the smallest market cap of the four players, it is completely changing the dynamics of manufacturers and distributors.
  • Apps can be powerful tools to support eBusiness objectives. Companies that see apps as just extensions of web content are missing the many opportunities to enrich experiences with cameras, microphones, speakers, accelerometers, and location-sensing capabilities.
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Is Facebook Worth It? You Bet

I was called a Facebook hater last week.  No ambiguity.  "You're such a hater!" this woman, who happened to be a social media marketer at a large retailer, told me. I will admit, I have reservations about Facebook’s role in commerce which has no doubt made her job more difficult, but I must defend myself.  I’m not a hater.  In fact, contrary to all the tweets and blogs questioning Facebook’s purported $100B valuation, I actually think the company is worth all of it and probably more. (To those same critics, if Facebook with $1B in profits is overvalued, what does that say about Groupon with about as much in losses?  But that’s a discussion for another day.)  Here are some considerations:

  • 44% of the world’s internet traffic visits Facebook daily.  As the CEO of an internet company months ago hypothetically and brilliantly asked me in response to the question of Facebook’s valuation, “What’s half the internet worth?”  Whatever the right number is, it’s a lot and when framed like that, it makes $100B seem very reasonable.
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The Guts To Grow: What Amazon.com, Trader Joe's, And Westin Hotels Have In Common

I received a curious email from one of the founders of eBags the other day. In it, he said that by bringing customer service back to the US and away from an offshore vendor, the company actually reduced customer service costs by 34% (yes, reduced!) while still growing sales by double digits in Q4. It reminded me of another article not too long ago from the Wall Street Journal that cited Qantas as having one of the world’s best check-in experiences because the airline invested in RFID tags for passengers, a decision that the article pointed out no other airline has yet copied. These examples stood out to me because these companies managed to pull off a very difficult trick: to make contrarian investments that industry peers would consider hogwash that nonetheless pay off in spades. It’s more likely that such investments would backfire, but when they work, they succeed beautifully. Three cases in point: 

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Why Facebook Is Still A Tough Sell For Retailers

As the Facebook IPO nears, all eyes are on the valuation the company will command.   The vast majority of that valuation will come from the company’s digital advertising business.  As for commerce, don’t expect much.  About a year ago, I asked the question Will Facebook Ever Drive eCommerce? and the answer hasn’t significantly changed in the time since.  Not only has Facebook seemingly been much more focused on the display ad side of the business all but dismissing retail (they rejected a keynote slot at the annual Shop.org summit last year and rumor has it that they turned down the slot following Bill Clinton at this year’s National Retail Federation big show, the trade show in all of retail), but the numbers that retailers have shared with us are no more encouraging:

  • Stores or fan pages on Facebook have yet to generate any significant revenue for companies as few shoppers visit brand pages or Facebook stores after becoming a fan
  • Few shoppers buy after seeing information posted on Facebook; a holiday study we did with GSI Commerce showed that less than 1% of revenue from retailers was attributable to social networks
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Raining On Ron Johnson's Parade

Ron Johnson, the new CEO of JCPenney, had a dog-and-pony show in New York this morning to discuss the company’s go-forward strategy. The major change: fewer sales and a move toward an everyday low price (EDLP) program. He also mentioned some store redesigns that would create boutiques to make JCPenney more akin to European department stores. There was also an allusion to services (similar to Genius Bar). While that should help to weed out cherry-picking shoppers and improve JCP’s assortment and experience (which already has significantly improved before Mr. Johnson thanks to partnerships with Mango and Sephora), it is unlikely to reverse JCPenney’s downward revenue slide or to grow the challenged mid-tier department store sector. This is because the biggest problem with JCP is something that is very difficult to fix (the same challenge that Sears has, by the way) which is that it has over 1,000 stores mostly located in bad malls with declining foot traffic. The question I have isn’t so much, can JCP reinvent its stores or the store experience, but how will it drive traffic back to those stores? Only the small fraction of its stores located in prime locations will even have the opportunity to re-engage shoppers; in fact, by our count, only 84 of JCPenney’s 1,100 stores are co-tenants of Ron Johnson’s old employer and the premier retailer today, the Apple Stores. 

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2012 Online Holiday Shopping Highlights

As the online holiday shopping season comes to a close, we’re in the process of pulling together our final thoughts on this season.  Last month, we predicted that the season would grow 15% over the previous year and by all accounts, that number should more or less be in the ballpark of what actually happened. 

I worked with the great team at Bizrate Insights again this holiday season to survey online holiday shoppers and their attitudes and here were some of the highlights from that research:

  • The web is cannibalizing Black Friday sales; 80% of online buyers we surveyed agreed with the statement “I prefer to shop online rather than go to crowded stores during the Thanksgiving weekend.”
  • Email is very much alive; shoppers said they find out about holiday deals through email more than any other marketing channel including search, social networks and mobile texts combined.
  • Approximately 12% of web buyers now say they belong to shipping clubs (e.g. Amazon Prime); that is up from 9% last year.
  • Sixteen percent of online buyers said they shopped with their mobile devices over the Thanksgiving weekend this year, up from 9% last year.

While mobile shopping is the most notable difference this year, retailers that mastered the basics of great values, extensive assortments and effective marketing campaigns should have fared best. We’ll be releasing a holiday post-mortem in January as well as our 2012-2017 online retail forecast in early Q1; stay tuned for final figures. 

What You Need To Know About The Online Sales Tax Debate

As the debate around mandating an online sales tax rages on, Forrester remains convinced that 2012 will see no significant national change to the current tax structure.  As stated in my new report, “What You Need To Know About The Online Sales Tax” and a previous blog post around the issue, some are framing the debate in such a way that online-only companies like Amazon and eBay are tax-shirking delinquents; they’re not. Not only are they in compliance with current law, Amazon, who was at one point resolutely opposed to any new legislation, has made concessions to voluntarily start collecting tax and in fact, physical retailers may soon regret their staunch stances as the balancing act that Amazon avoided around nexus kept them squarely away from physical stores to date.  Now, that may change and create yet another headache for retailers as Amazon reportedly ponders stores.

So what does this all mean? There is likely to be a few more years of heated debate around the issue followed by a number of possible outcomes. eBusiness professionals should stay abreast of situation, but realize that this is not likely to be a game changer for the following reasons:

  • Tax has a negligible impact on online shopping behavior.  In a survey that was conducted in partnership with Bizrate Insights, we found only 8% of consumers said that tax was a priority consideration. Furthermore, only around one quarter of buyers said that the introduction of a sales tax would cause them to switch retailers.
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