US Online Holiday Sales To Avoid a Double-Dip Recession

Forrester’s “US Online Holiday Retail Forecast, 2011” launches today, revealing strong growth despite a shaky economy.  November and December alone are expected to pull in nearly 60 billion dollars in online revenue, a 15% increase over 2010 and about one-third of overall online sales volume for the year.  Much of the growth comes as a result of web shoppers doing more of their holiday shopping online and is enhanced by:

  • Customers hunting down deals.  The web has always been the channel for finding value, but as shoppers are more likely to have their smartphones in hand, and as the US unemployment rates continues to approach a double-digit percent, expect even more browsing online for great values.  Deal-related keyword searches spike around the holidays and many opportunistic customers actually look to load up on products from their own personal wishlists given the ubiquitous availability of offers. 
  • Key dates getting bigger.   The trend for the last several years has been that Cybermonday is the biggest shopping day of the year for web retailers.  This has become a self-fulfilling prophecy as retailers now provide rich sales and offers on those dates, further driving customers to expect fabulous values at the same time.
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For Groupon, The Really Hard Work Starts Now

After months of drama, Groupon finally had its IPO last week, concluding perhaps the most anticipated event in the daily deals space.  Now, however, is the even bigger challenge of actually proving out its valuation. The obstacles aren’t small and we lay them out in a report out today called Myths and Truths About Daily Deals. We define daily deals as both the purveyors of prepaid vouchers like Groupon and Living Social as well as the flash sale sites like Gilt Groupe and Woot. Two of the biggest challenges for prepaid voucher companies are the following:

  • Little incrementality especially for core Groupon businesses like restaurants or even national retailer deals. The majority of consumers who redeem prepaid vouchers (80% in the case of clothing or shoe stores, for instance) were already customers of the brand, and more than half say they would have purchased anyway without the voucher. 
  • Email won’t drive growth moving forward. While Groupon vaunts the size of its “subscriber base” (i.e., email addresses), all evidence points to the medium becoming less important. A significant portion of people who once subscribed to these emails no longer do, and many simply don’t want to because they have no need for more clutter in their inboxes. On the other hand, we’ve heard anecdotally that revenues for these sites are increasingly coming from organic traffic, which can be good so long as a daily deal company can continue to keep its brand top-of-mind for consumers. Marketing and sales, however, are two of the expenses that Groupon has loudly vowed to reduce.
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“State Of Retailing Online 2011” Part Two Launched On Shop.org Today

Forrester recently published the “State Of Retailing Online 2011: Merchandising, Headcount, And Global Strategies” report in conjunction with our friends at Shop.org. It is available on Shop.org (with a subscription) now.

Some of the reports highlights include:

  • Online retail continues to steal market share from other channels. “The State Of Retailing Online, 2011” survey shows an average growth rate of 28% for online retailers over the past year — this has been driven by improvements in retail execution including higher conversion rates, higher average order values, and strong repeat shopper revenue.
  • Investment in site merchandising drives conversion increase. While some tactics such as “ratings and reviews” are perennial merchandising investment favorites, more retailers now also are investing in merchandising through new channels, such as mobile. This report categorizes each of the 80 tactics reviewed as an industry standard, area of opportunity, investment area, or unproven tactic.
  • Headcount growth lags as overall eCommerce growth charges forward. Retailers maintain conservative growth plans — less than 10% — that largely don’t match up with the year-over-year growth of web retail overall. Focus currently is on mobile, marketing, merchandising, IT, and analytics.
  • Global expansion will be an investment focus, but not top priority. While 37% of retailers cited international commerce as very important, most global businesses still haven’t fully committed to that lofty title — remote management of global services, accepting returns shipped only to their home country, and English-only sites and customer service are still common practices for these “global” online retailers.
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3 Questions For TheFind's CEO On Tablet Shopping

We discovered some interesting information about how consumers are using tablets in recent research with Bizrate Insights: that shoppers who have tablets often prefer to browse and buy on those devices and that tablet ownership increases the amount of time that people spend online altogether.  One company that caught onto that trend even before we fielded our data was Siva Kumar, CEO of the shopping aggregator TheFind.  I ran into Siva several months ago at Channel Advisor's Catalyst summit where he showed me an impressive demo (on his iPad, natch) of Catalogue, a magazine-like compendium of all my favorite store catalogs (see below).  Given his hands-on experience bringing a multiretailer tablet experience to life, I thought it would be interesting to get a t-commerce pioneer's POV:

Siva, do you think tablet commerce will be something retailers need to explicitly watch?

Absolutely yes. Online shopping today is very much a chore. It is search-driven, and while search is useful, expedient, and powerful, it is not particularly fun or exciting. More importantly, search leaves little room for retailers to do what they do best, which is to merchandise their wares to consumers.  Conversely, tablet shopping, with its high-resolution graphics, touchscreens, and more tactile interactivity offer game changing potential that may create the means by which eCommerce could grow to be as much as 20% of retail commerce by 2020. 

What are the most important things to watch in developing content for a tablet device?

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Why Tablet Commerce May Trump Mobile Commerce

While all eyes in the online retail space seem to be on social networks and smartphones these days, we’re seeing an emerging trend with tablets that could be the most interesting of all. Only 9% of web shoppers now have tablet devices, but here’s the big deal — most of those people already own smartphones (as well as PCs, of course), and they are saying that they actually prefer to use their tablets for shopping. Not only that, but the ownership of the tablet device itself actually increases the amount of time that people spend online. And we’re anticipating a hockey stick in tablet adoption in the next five years on top of all that. You can read more about these findings in the report my colleague Sarah Rotman Epps and I just wrote titled, “Why Tablet Commerce May Trump Mobile Commerce,” which is based on findings from our joint research on online shoppers with Bizrate Insights. Some of the most compelling aspects that are helping to drive the shopping experience on the device:

  • The larger screen. Not surprising, given the choice between a smartphone and a tablet, consumers find it a lot easier to use the latter to surf the net, click on links, and type in the critical biodata to purchase something online, especially since PayPal Express doesn’t seem to be integrated onto most mobile commerce sites yet.
  • The portability. Consumers love taking their tablets around the house and on the go. The living room is the most common room where the tablet is used, but out of the home is also popular, particularly at restaurants and in airports.
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What The Online Sales Tax Debate Misses

As the election year approaches, we can bet that the cries to impose tax on online retailers will get even more pronounced as politicians look for ways to close our budget deficit and make villains of small but seemingly rich segments that can afford to bear the burden (e.g., private jet owners, Amazon.com). While some journalists are framing companies like Amazon as enabling tax shirkers at the expense of impoverished local school districts, the reality is, the debate is really about big box retailers and physical stores fighting to stop the wallet share war that companies like Amazon are winning online. The NRF has been one of the biggest proponents of making web merchants collect taxes, and it's not surprising that its board is composed of many of the country's largest retailers. Some critical facts:

  • A significant portion of transactions online already collect sales tax because people purchase from online stores like BestBuy.com or Walmart.com, so the real amount that is being “lost” is less than the numbers being bandied around would have you believe, and not enough to make up anyone’s deficit, maybe a small city somewhere but probably not much more.
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Beware The Tales Of The Social Commerce Loch Ness Monster

In my ongoing-yet-fruitless quest to find the great social commerce success story, I’ll talk to anyone who will talk to me  about the topic.  I talked this week to a "venture capitalist" who shall remain nameless, and we had the following conversation:

VC: I’ve seen social commerce success. I have. I’ve seen commerce success on Facebook.

Me: Really? Are you referring to maybe one of the marketplaces on Facebook? Or ShopSocially?

VC: No, no one’s heard of this company. No one in the Valley has heard of this company. Only I know about this company.

Me: And this is a business that can scale?

VC: It’s sooooo scalable.  I’ve seen it scale. 

Me:  Really?

VC: They make millions and millions of dollars. I’ve seen it. 

Me: Can you tell me who you’re talking about?

VC: I . . . I’m not at liberty to say the name. They want to stay under the radar. They don’t want anyone to know about their secret sauce. 

Me: Really?  They’ve discovered something that no one, not Silicon Valley, not Facebook’s army of developers, not any retailer in the world has yet to discover?

VC: Hey, I don’t need YOU to believe me! I’m happy to just make my money. 

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The Mobile Commerce Train: Coming But Not Here Yet

After social commerce, mobile commerce is the most heavily debated topic-du-jour among retailers these days. One thing that both social and mobile commerce have in common is that they are both small. Teeny in fact. Forrester’s Mobile Commerce Forecast, 2011 To 2016, which launched today, shows that retailers can expect 2% of their online web sales (yes, I said web sales which means a minuscule percent of overall retail) to be transacted through mobile devices in 2011.  While we also expect mobile commerce sales to grow 40% each year for the next five years, we’re still talking small numbers overall (7% of web sales penetration by 2016).  Why so small you may ask.  After all, aren’t smartphones changing the way we consume web content?  Some things to consider:

  • Tablets. We don’t include tablet shopping in our definition of mobile shopping, but the creation (and subsequent explosion in sales) of this device is probably the single biggest inhibitor to the growth of “mobile commerce.”  Data that we gathered with Bizrate Insights (to be released separately and soon) indicates that most tablet owners also own smartphones, and many of those people naturally prefer to shop on the device that has the larger screen when given the choice.
  • Shopping never leads web behavior. In any list of activities that people do on the Internet, shopping nearly always ranks below things like “reading news” or “using social networks.” Even those activities are not universal among the smartphone set, so it would be premature to expect that shopping would rank high on the list (which it, of course, doesn’t). 
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An Open Letter To Anyone Planning To Buy Into Groupon’s IPO

Dear Potential Investor,

I have mixed feelings about the Groupon IPO. On one hand, we’ve just come out of a horrible economic period where there was a real fear of wealth destruction. But now just a few months after the near-collapse of our financial institutions, we actually have an extraordinary opportunity for wealth creation — how great is that! On the other hand, there is no rational math that could possibly get anyone to the valuation Groupon thinks it deserves. Yes, Groupon grew from $30 million in sales to more than $700 million between 2009 and 2010, but most of that growth was artificial. (The lack of profitability is another issue, but let's not even go there.) Here’s why:

  • $265 million came from its international markets, which were acquisitions.
  • It spent a quarter-billion dollars (!) on marketing. To put that into context, the average large eCommerce retailer spends $11 million on interactive marketing. Back of the envelope calculations from the SEC filing get us to $31 spent to acquire a customer, who then probably spends a little more than that on Groupon. That means it spent about $250 million to make another $300 million.
  • It launched in more than 100 new markets in 2010. I’ll conjecture that in any market in America, you can sell $500,000 of half-off manicures and teeth whitening procedures in a year just by hanging a shingle. That gets us to another $50 million in revenue. 
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eCommerce Acquisition Fever

I cover the recommendation engines space for online retail and got a call recently that one of the better-known players in the space Rich Relevance acquired a smaller but specialized player in the space CNET Intelligent Cross-Sell. It’s a bold move and one that strengthens Rich Relevance in the consumer electronics vertical, and it also seems to be a trend. We’ve received a lot of these kinds of calls recently — eBay acquiring GSI Commerce, Nordstrom acquiring HauteLook, Shutterfly acquiring Tiny Prints, and Walgreen’s acquiring drugstore.com. And this follows a slew of acquisitions over the past few years by players like IBM, Oracle, and Adobe trying to enrich their retail suites. Rich Relevance didn’t tell me specifics like deal terms, but it seems to point to bigger factors affecting eCommerce these days:

  • Wicked competition. There have just been too many point solutions in eCommerce. Walk the exhibition floor at Shop.org or Internet Retailer, and it’s dizzying to see how many niche needs that eCommerce platforms don’t serve are delivered by third-party players. It’s overwhelming for anyone tasked with managing an RFP to make sense of it all. On top of that, there are all sorts of inexpensive (even free) solutions that promise a good-enough solution for everything from analytics to recommendations, so the need to partner up and go to market as a united front just makes sense for so many smaller players.  As for traditional (and even established web retailers), they struggle with being nimble. As the expression goes, “When you can’t beat ‘em . . .” 
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