Deal-seeking, Mobile Rule Early Holiday Shopping

Per-person Spending Down as Shoppers Wait for More Price Cuts

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With Thanksgiving, Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Sofa Sunday, and Cyber Mondays I and II behind us, several shopping trends are certain so far: Still financially shaky consumers continue to seek deals and more are using mobile devices to research and buy merchandise at the lowest prices, whether it be electronics, apparel or toys. That makes it all the more imperative for retailers to entice shoppers across all buying channels through Dec. 24 in order to grab a bigger share of what's left of holiday budgets.

Traffic over Black Friday weekend rose to 141 million shoppers versus 139 million a year ago, according to the National Retail Federation. However, overall spending dropped 3.9% to $407.02 per person from $423.55 last year, partially due to lower prices. That was the first time in four years the NRF saw a per-person spending decrease.

As another reason for the drop in per-person spending, Bill Thorne, senior VP-communications and public affairs at the NRF, pointed to the fact that 53% of consumers said they started holiday shopping before Thanksgiving, in part due to the lateness of the holiday this year. That, and the fact that more retailers opened on Thanksgiving itself, helped explain why some retailers said Black Friday traffic was lighter than usual, even though the NRF said Black Friday had a 3.4% increase in shoppers year over year.

The NRF still expects this year's total holiday sales to rise 3.9% to $602 billion. In comparison, sales rose 3.5% from 2011-2012. In 2008, at the height of the economic recession, holiday sales dropped 4.4%.

Mobile makes a move

Turning to e-commerce, total Thanksgiving through Cyber Monday sales jumped 26% to $7.4 billion, according to Adobe Systems. Cyber Monday sales alone reached $2.3 billion, up 16%, with mobile sales skyrocketing 80% to $419 million.

Monday was "absolutely the biggest shopping day online of the entire year," said Jay Henderson, strategy director for IBM, which runs IBM Digital Analytics Benchmark, an online retail data and analysis tool.

The fact that Cyber Monday was so successful even after heavy promotions by retailers for Thanksgiving and Black Friday indicates shoppers are being patient and are likely waiting for more deals to materialize, according to Mr. Henderson. He added: "The numbers finally proved that mobile has reached that tipping point of being a major factor in online shopping."

Indeed, consumers appear willing to spend if a mobile message is on point. According to a recent survey by Responsys, 64% of consumers who subscribe to mobile marketing services said they have made a purchase after receiving a relevant mobile message. And well over half of respondents said they are compelled to buy when offered the right price.

Traffic from mobile devices was more than 40% of all online usage over the Black Friday weekend and more than one-quarter of all online sales came from mobile shopping, according to IBM's sales tracking.

"There's a big trend where people use their smartphone to browse—that really rules online traffic," Mr. Henderson said. And some retailers have embraced the idea of being an "e-showroom" and are "trying to make that a competitive advantage." Some, like big box retailers who do not have good cell-phone service in stores, now offer free internet access in stores, Mr. Henderson noted. Others price match, when prices can be researched on the spot.

"Retailers made consumers comfortable with the fact that they were getting the best price of merchandise, combined with the ability to actually showroom the merchandise and provide that instant gratification of taking the merchandise home with them," said Mr. Henderson.

'Spectacular' deals

For Tom Blischok, chief retail strategist at consulting firm Booz & Company, it's clear consumers know what they want well ahead of time. "Not one person I met over the [Black Friday] weekend, and especially Thursday night, did not know what they were going to buy when they walked into the store and researched it thoroughly to know they were getting the lowest possible price."

Mr. Blischok, who said he visited 125 stores over the Black Friday weekend, noted: "Retailers stepped up to the bar and they actually helped people achieve some degree of luxury. …The deals were spectacular."

But because consumers have already spent $400 of their $700 budgets, retailers will have to entice shoppers to spend affordably as Christmas lurks. As a result, Mr. Blischok said he expects to see more promotions and discounting to create necessary traffic. "This holiday season is going to go down as one of the most value driven holiday seasons in many years," he said.

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