What did the 2012 holidays teach us about the current state of shoppers—and, of course, the places where they shop? Here are 10 notable trends.
The Expansion of Black Friday—and the Entire Season
Even though it has caused a backlash among certain consumers, retailers have concluded that the formula for increasing seasonal sales totals is mostly based on increasing holiday promotions, deals, and store hours—hours that now include Thanksgiving night. Not only is it standard for stores to open by 8 p.m. or 9 p.m. on Turkey Day, but the holiday season now basically overlaps with the back-to-school shopping period, with promos and Christmas displays popping up in early September.
Soaring Online Sales, So-So In-Store Sales
As projected, it’s been yet another very strong season for e-commerce. Online spending was up sharply on Thanksgiving, Black Friday, and Cyber Monday alike (increasing 17% or more compared to corresponding days in 2011), and consumers hardly tired of online shopping in the weeks that followed. During the week of “Green Monday” (second Monday in December), four separate days crossed the $1 billion mark for online sales, according to comScore, resulting in the highest-ever sales total over a five-day stretch.
Meanwhile, spending in physical stores was down nearly 2% on Black Friday, and after several sluggish weeks of sales, some experts lowered projections for holiday spending during the 2012 season.
Brick-and-Mortar and Online (Try to) Become One
If there’s one dominant trend in retail lately, it’s the utter blurring of online and offline shopping. For quite a while, shoppers have viewed the two modes of transaction as basically interchangeable. Retailers with a presence on the web and in real stores seem to have finally embraced the idea that both segments must be partners sending the same message to shoppers. In the past, it was almost as if the people running a retailer’s website had no contact with the people running the actual stores. Prices varied frequently, and often, products sold online weren’t sold in stores, and vice versa, leading to confused, frustrated shoppers. Early on, a retailer’s presence in social media might have come as a result of a few ambitious young interns, if there was a presence at all. Today, on the other hand, retailers and analysts talk nonstop about the need to combine online and offline sales efforts, with phrases like “multiscreen shopper,” “omnichannel shopping,” and “cross-platform marketing” popping up regularly.
Retailers understand that “showrooming” is commonplace, and that it’s not necessarily a bad thing to encourage a combined online-offline shopping experience. In fact, according to one survey, 91% of consumers wound up in a store because of something they saw online, and 77% admit to researching products while inside stores. Retailers have no choice but to embrace the “omnichannel” shopper. While they’re actively trying to lure shoppers into physical stores with deals and promotions, they’re simultaneously ramping up efforts to draw consumers to their websites. The results have boosted online sales, but because of the challenges of creating a truly unified online-offline experience, there remain instances of consumer frustration due to confusion over what is sold where, canceled orders, price variations between the web and brick-and-mortar, and more. This remains a work in progress.
More Shipping Deals—Speedy, Free, You Name It
In the same way that 30% or 40% off has become the starting point for getting shoppers’ attention during the holidays, consumers now often demand free shipping in order to consider an online purchase. Accordingly, free shipping has become almost universal during the holidays, and throughout the year really.
To meet the needs of shoppers, retailers provided free shipping as late as December 22 with guaranteed delivery by Christmas Eve. For procrastinators or the merely impatient, sites also increased the possibilities of same-day delivery. The message being sent to shoppers is this: Any way you want to make a purchase, we’re going to help you make that purchase.
More and More “Leaked” Black Friday Ads
In the past, retailers used to vigilantly protect their Black Friday prices and ads from making their way to the public eye too early. The thinking was that if consumers saw, say, a bigtime Black Friday deal on a laptop, they sure as heck wouldn’t buy that laptop the weekend before Black Friday, when it was double the price. Lately, though, retailers seem to be embracing the idea that there’s little downside to earlier publicity—and just plain more of it—for sales. While some stores are coy about how their ads get “leaked” well in advance, many large chains are deciding to simply publicize their Black Friday prices well before Black Friday to get shoppers excited and help draw them in during before, during, and after the biggest shopping days.
Price Matching Crosses the Digital Line
During the holidays, many retailers have gotten in the habit of promising to match the officially advertised prices listed by their competitors in weakly circulars. Walmart even matches prices year-round. But traditionally, the guarantees have come with a large caveat: They’re limited only to prices offered in brick-and-mortar stores, meaning they wouldn’t match online prices, including those of the company that’s arguably become the toughest competitor in the business, Amazon. This season, though, for the first time ever, Target and Best Buy offered to match online competitor prices. PayPal and certain credit cards offered expansive price-matching services as well, giving shoppers more options than ever to assure that they wouldn’t wind up paying too much.