What We’ve Learned About Online Holiday Shopping So Far This Year

As retailers approach the homestretch of the 2010 holiday shopping season, we thought it would be useful to share some insights from consumers about their Web buying activity. Forrester and Bizrate Insights teamed up in late November/early December to survey online customers, and here are a few of the findings:

  • Free shipping with a threshold is most popular (though people would, naturally, prefer to have no threshold). One interesting fact is that the threshold (in addition to adding units to transactions) attracts higher-income shoppers. Households with incomes over $150k are nearly twice as likely to use “free shipping with a threshold” than households with incomes less than $40k.  
  • 9% of shoppers say they belong to some shipping club (e.g. Amazon Prime, ShopRunner) and participation skews up with income. 13% of households with incomes over $150k say they have this type of membership.
  • Email still rules. From our Cyber Monday research with Bizrate Insights, 43% of consumers who shopped online on that day found out about deals through email. This was by far the most popular way that people found out about deals, greater than search, Facebook, or even word of mouth.  The second biggest source of finding out about deals was a retailer’s own site. 
  • It’s about women and gifts during the online shopping season. Again from our Cyber Monday research with Bizrate Insights, 69% of online shoppers were women. Only about half of men purchased gifts for others that day, but 78% of women purchased gifts that day. 
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Cyber Monday Post-Mortem

Enough with the Groupon madness this week.  Let’s talk about things that actually impact our businesses.  Like holidays sales to date, and in particular, a quick post-mortem on Cyber Monday now that the week is over.  Forrester fielded some questions to consumers in conjunction with Bizrate Insights (the findings will be available in full to clients in a few weeks) and here are some quick takeaways as teasers: 

  • Most people don’t buy on Cyber Monday (though many would like to), so the Cyberweek deals like Amazon has are always a good idea.  62% of the 3,200 shoppers we surveyed said that they didn’t shop on Cyber Monday.
  • Of those who shopped but did not buy (45% of shoppers who were trolling eCommerce sites on Cyber Monday!), 28% wanted to buy but didn’t see any products that they wanted. Product selection is king.
  • Social, schmocial.  Not such a big deal yet.  Only 7% of people who found deals on Cyber Monday found them through social networks or Twitter, versus 51% who found them from emails from the retailer.
  • Some people live under rocks. Kidding. But one-fifth of the people who didn’t shop on Cyber Monday said “They didn’t know there was anything special about that day.”  How that is possible I have no idea, but I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they don’t have time in their lives to squander away time online like the rest of us.  But for anyone really wondering what this “special day” is about, check out this link (see the full slideshow here) — these are screen shots of the top 50 merchants’ home pages from this past Monday.
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Why Google Buying Groupon Is a Bad Idea

So the latest rumor is that tomorrow Google will buy Groupon for $5 billion.  You're not alone if you think that's crazy.  Here’s why:

  • $5 billion is an absurd valuation for a company that is in a business with virtually no barriers to entry and is younger than my toddler. 
  • That’s more than what they paid for YouTube, which had a heck of a lot more traffic when it was acquired than Groupon has now.
  • It’s a huge chunk of the cash that Google has on hand.  That’s a lot of money. 
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Forrester's Online Holiday Retail Forecast Projects 16% Increase Over '09

Forrester’s "US Online Holiday Retail Forecast, 2010" launches today, reporting quite a bit of optimism this shopping season. November and December alone are expected to pull in nearly $52 billion, a 16% increase over 2009. Several key factors contribute to this projection:

  • Consumers are shifting more and more to online retail.
  • Offline retail is still a significant player.

Consumers are cooperating, too. They’re looking to spend more this season and do so through a variety of means (mobile, apps, etc.).

Retailers are responding with numerous strategies, such as larger promotional budgets, honing in on key dates, and experimenting with new shipping options.

500MM Users...So Why Can't They Show You The $$??

I was so glad to read Malcolm Gladwell’s piece in the New Yorker, because as a Facebook bear, I often feel alone in the wilderness.  Finally, I thought, a widely respected contrarian on the topic of social networks!  He says the “revolution won’t happen on Twitter.”  And I say “no one's revenue will come from Facebook.” 

While there is no shortage of bragging about how many people in the world are on Facebook, sadly none of them have generated any significant revenue for other companies. That may very well be The Social Network's bane.  I spend much of my day talking with, surveying and interviewing retailers and the general consensus I hear about social networks is that they just don’t drive revenue.  Nearly 60% of retailers agree that the returns on social marketing efforts are unclear.  Retailers tell us Facebook fans don’t buy after becoming fans, they don’t click on the posts that retailers make, and no one visits or buys from the Facebook stores (unless that’s the only place where your merchandise is available).  I contrast social networks with search, which even 10 years ago was regarded as one of the most effective marketing tactics out there even when few retailers were using it.  The State of Retailing Online Report from way back in 2001 had 88% of retailers saying paid search was effective.  To this day, search continues to retain that honor.  Social networks?  Not so much.  Only 7% of retailers say it’s an effective customer acquisition source.

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Groupon: Scourge Or Phenom? Our Vote: Phenom. Here’s Why…

A Rice University faculty member just published a study on how effective merchants find Groupon. To Groupon critics, it was honey because a whooping 40% of participants wouldn’t repeat the experience.

But here’s the catch and why I’m still a huge proponent of the “group buying” model that encompasses Living Social, Buy With Me, Tippr and now the Yellow Pages and local radio stations and newspapers too: most of that 40% thought the Groupon customers were cheap and tipped badly. 

If that’s the worst of the problems, this model may actually be worth much more than the billion-dollar valuations already placed on the space.  Here’s why.  First, businesses like restaurants can prepopulate the “tip” field.  I went to a restaurant in Charlotte called Zebra which has done multiple group buying offers and they include a 15% gratuity in the bill.  Any business not already doing that could and should be.  Second, and more powerful, is that the group sites could capture information on who is a good and bad customer from the merchant.  Every redemption has a unique code associated with it (see image). None of the group buying sites are doing that now and merchants, at least according to the few that I’ve interviews, are keeping track of redemptions in rudimentary excel spreadsheets. The first company to provide a merchant tool that allows the flagging of particularly good and egregiously bad customers will be the winner in this space. By eliminating the “bad” customers from the offer, a merchant is much more likely to experience profitability or service issues that strain these small businesses. 

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New “State Of Retailing Online” Doc To Be Released On Shop.org Next Week

The findings from part two of Forrester’s annual survey conducted in conjunction with Shop.org will be available on the Shop.org site next week.  This installment of the "State Of Retailing Online" series will delve into the world of key metrics as well as multichannel and global strategies.

 Some highlights include:

  • Identifying improvements in performance and customer retention
  • Developing strategies for successful global expansion
  • Avoiding the pitfalls that many multichannel organizations face

 We look forward to sharing the full version on Forrester.com near the end of October.

Will Collecting Online Sales Tax Really Make The Difference?

Okay, so it’s no Brown v. Board of Education, but for those in retail, the 1992 U.S. Supreme Court case of Quill v. North Dakota could be considered just as landmark.  For the uninitiated, it spelled out the regulations surrounding collecting sales tax for states in which they have no physical presence – in short, that they weren’t allowed to do it.

With elections around the corner, many politicians and associations are stumping on this very issue.  They believe that many retailers are exempting themselves from paying the sales tax that the state ultimately deserves.  After all, 45 states in total collect sales tax from brick and mortar stores, which end up accounting for roughly 25 percent of their total income.  Sensationalism abounds in the discussion of this lost revenue: "Some of the things that have gone on in this recession would not have happened if sales taxes had not gone uncollected," said Scott Peterson, executive director of Streamlined Sales Tax Governing Board.

Since 2003, a majority of the remaining retailers have followed suit in collecting tax, leaving pureplays, many of whom are mom and pops who in this economy are at least earning income. Assessing taxes on these businesses won’t really help anyone except Walmart. And let’s be realistic here: Even studies like the one by the University of Tennessee say only 25% of eCommerce sales taxes that are “due” go uncollected. And we know from our surveys that 65% of people say that Web sales taxes (if increased) would cause them to decrease their online spend. With these facts that chip away at the supposed billions that supposedly go uncollected, this appears to be a much less pervasive issue than once put forth. 

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Toys "R" Us Throws A Hail Mary Pass With Pop-Up Stores

On Wednesday of last week, Ann Zimmerman of The Wall Street Journal reported on my former employer, Toys “R” Us, which is planning to open up 600 temporary “pop-up stores” in anticipation of the holiday shopping season.  The WSJ describes it as a super-sized bet while the company maintains it is a proven strategy.  Like most prospective retail decisions in this uncertain economic period, it is likely a mixture of both.

Ann certainly has some legitimate weight behind her assertions:

  • The space in which the pop-up stores will reside is distressed for a reason.  Who can guarantee that a watered-down version of Toys “R” Us will be able to overcome inherent issues such as poor foot traffic or a bad location?
  • Toys “R” Us has historically experienced issues with inventory; the majority of it never turns and Toys "R" Us often sells out of its best sellers before the season comes to a close.
  • While trends show improvement, there is no guarantee of economic rebound for the holiday seasons.  This could spell disaster if Toys “R” Us moves forward with 600 new shops.
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This Year, US Online Holiday Retail Sales Will Be Up 8%

Sucharita Mulpuru

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