More Black Friday Searches but Less Browsing Online

Meanwhile, Foot Traffic to Stores Went Up, but Spending Was Down

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NEW YORK ( -- One of the more popular Google searches over Thanksgiving was "Walmart Black Friday store map," which may go a long way in explaining some of the numbers being reported.

Consumers are increasingly using the web as a research tool to help them plan bricks-and-mortar shopping trips.
Consumers are increasingly using the web as a research tool to help them plan bricks-and-mortar shopping trips. Credit: AP
The data coming out today show online retail traffic was either flat or down, depending on the source, while search queries looking for weekend sales skyrocketed. And although web traffic stagnated, consumer spending online rose. Meanwhile, offline data paint a different story. Even as the number of consumers headed to stores jumped from the same period last year -- known as Black Friday as retailers look at the start of the holiday sales season to put them in the black -- they nonetheless chose to spend less.

The seemingly divergent trends indicate consumers are increasingly using the web as a research tool to help them plan bricks-and-mortar shopping trips and make more thought-out online purchases. Consider the data:

  • On Thanksgiving Day, the percentage of U.S. visits to the top 500 retail websites was down 15% compared to Thanksgiving Day 2008, according to Hitwise; on Friday that number dropped 9%. ComScore, meanwhile, reported flat Black Friday web traffic year over year. But the National Retail Federation reported weekend store traffic grew by 13%.

  • But Thanksgiving e-commerce sales rose 10% year over year to $313 million, according to ComScore; Black Friday spending totaled $595 million, up 11% over 2008. Meanwhile, the National Retail Federation reported a drop in per-person in-store spending.

  • Google searches for retail-related terms were up 49% this Black Friday weekend over the previous year. And searches for "Black Friday" on Thanksgiving and the day after were up 20% over last year; searches for "black Friday sales" on those same days were up 50%.

Clicks to bricks
One reason for the apparent decline in visits to the 500 largest retail websites could be because many retailers released their Black Friday promotions earlier this year, eliminating the need to wait until Thanksgiving Day or the day after to check for deals. Retailers such as Sears, Kmart and Kohl's also began holding holiday or Black Friday-themed sales earlier in the month.

What they searched for on Black Friday
Searches for "Twilight gifts" were up 50% on Black Friday weekend over the prior weekend.

"Twilight"-related queries were 20% higher than 2008's hottest Black Friday queries, which were around "Hannah Montana" and "High School Musical."

Searches for e-readers increased 40% on Black Friday weekend from the weekend prior.

Searches for smartphones were up 30% over the previous weekend.

Engagement-ring searches were up 20% year over year.

Searches for Snuggie were up 30% year over year.
Information provided by Google

But Google had another explanation. While it noticed a huge spike in "Black Friday"-related searches -- up more than 20% -- the search giant noticed another trend: lots of searches geared toward offline shopping. Searches for "printable coupons," for example, were up 50% year over year, leading the company to speculate that people were researching online but buying at stores.

"People are increasingly using the internet to do their research before going to the store, but what we've seen with Cyber Monday [the Monday after the holiday weekend] and this past weekend is people taking it further -- they're being very specific about which deals they're looking for," said Chris O'Neill, retail industry director at Google." He added: "They're even planning out their in-store visits. You're seeing a lot of searches that manifest themselves in-store."

More-considered buyers
Additionally, the rise in searches coupled with stagnate web traffic could have another explanation: The research people were doing on Thursday and Friday amid stuffing and leftovers led them to be more considered e-commerce buyers, meaning they knew what they wanted before they went to visit retailer sites.

"They're searching and then when they go to the [online] store, they've done their homework and they have a good sense of what they want," Mr. O'Neill said, suggesting an explanation. "Perhaps they're more strategic in their online behavior."

Of course, it's also important to keep in mind different data sources are measuring different things. Hitwise data, for example, showed a 9% drop in percentage of web visits to the top 500 retail sites on Black Friday, while ComScore reported flat overall retail traffic and huge gains among most of the largest retail sites. Those two trends appear divergent but one explanation can be found in the different ways the two companies measure traffic: Hitwise looks at site visits as a percentage of total web visits. So if total web traffic grew by a large percentage, while retail traffic grew by a smaller percentage, it could appear to have dropped, even if absolute numbers stayed the same.

Overall tempered expectations
Roughly 195 million consumers shopped in stores and online over the Black Friday weekend, up from 172 million last year, according to the National Retail Federation. But, according to the NRF, average spending dropped to $343.31 per person from $372.57 a year ago.

"It just wasn't the start to the holiday season that we were hoping for, and quite frankly, we were downright disappointed, especially given the recent buzz that shoppers might loosen purse strings for holiday gifting," wrote Lisa Walters and Sapna Shah, principals at Retail Eye Partners, in a note following Black Friday, the traditional start of the holiday shopping season. "It's in no way a kick-off to get excited about and doesn't give us the warm fuzzies for how December is going to play out," she added.

Indeed, though some analysts expressed mild optimism given the increase in traffic over the holiday weekend, it was tempered with low expectations for the next several weeks.

Waiting for discounts
"We continue to anticipate a period of moderate consumer spending patterns until the last seven to 10 days before Christmas, as we expect consumers to wait for additional aggressive discounting and promotional activity," said Robert Drbul, an analyst with Barclays Capital.

Industry watchers pointed out that while consumers may be shopping again, they are being careful about what they spend on, leaving the bulk of early holiday sales to be driven by sales promotions.

"Shoppers proved this weekend that they were willing to open their wallets for a bargain, heading out to take advantage of great deals on less expensive items like toys, small appliances and winter clothes," said Tracy Mullin, president-CEO of the National Retail Federation. "While retailers are encouraged by the number of Americans who shopped over Black Friday weekend, they know they have their work cut out for them to keep people coming back through Christmas."

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