The great, disappearing retail store act.

What’s in store for retail? Maybe not much at all …

There have been quite a few news reports about store closings since the beginning of this year — many of them focused on big brands like Kmart, JCPenney and Abercrombie & Fitch.

But what about the retail industry as a whole?

Recently, GetApp conducted research among a more general group of U.S. retailers that run online retail operations as well as a physical stores.

Among this group of respondents, two out of three believe that they could be closing their physical stores within the coming decade and operating their business solely online:

  • Extremely likely to be running my business solely online by 2027: ~23%
  • Likely: ~43%
  • Not sure: ~17%
  • Unlikely: ~12%
  • Extremely unlikely: ~4%

If these figures turn out to be even somewhat accurate, the “retail apocalypse” some news organizations are talking about will have become even more of a reality than even the most hyperventilating journalists are predicting.

It certainly lends additional credibility to current narrative about the downward slide of shopping malls across the United States …

All those narratives about Amazon? They’re not exactly accurate.

abI doubt I know a single person under the age of 75 who hasn’t purchased at least one item of merchandise from Amazon over the years. And I know quite a few people whose only shopping experience for the holidays is a date with the Amazon website.

Still, some of the breathless stories and statistics that are put forward about Amazon and its business model seem almost too impressive to be true.

I’m not just talking about news reports of drone deliveries (a whole lot of “hat” and far less “cattle” there) or the idea that fully-robotic warehouses are just around the corner – although these stories do make for attention-grabbing headlines.  (Despite the continued need for human involvement, the way that robots are being used inside Amazon warehouses is still quite impressive.)

Moreover, a study published recently by BloomReach based on a survey of ~2,200 U.S. online consumers finds that Amazon is involved in most online shopping excursions, with nine out of ten online shoppers reporting that they check Amazon’s site even if they end up finding the product they want via another e-commerce resource.

More than half of the BloomReach survey respondents reports that they check on the Amazon site first — which is a new high for the company.

But are all of the reports about Amazon as credible?

Doug Garnett
Doug Garnett

Recently Doug Garnett, CEO of advertising agency Atomic Direct, penned a piece that was published in the December 2016 edition of Response Magazine. In it, he threw a dose of cold-water reality on some of the narratives surrounding Amazon and its business accomplishments.

Here are several of them that seem to contradict some of the commonly held perceptions:

“Amazon is a $100 billion retailer.”

Garnett notes that once subtracting Amazon’s non-retail revenue for 2015 (the last year for which financial data is available), the worldwide figure is more like half of that.

In the United States, Amazon’s retail sales are closer to $25 billion, which means it makes up approximately 6% of total retail sales.

That’s still very significant, but it isn’t the dominating presence as it might seem from all of the press hype.

“Amazon is profitable now.”

Yes, it is – and that’s after many years when the company wasn’t. However, approximately three-fourths of Amazon’s profits are due to selling cloud-based services, and the vast majority of the remaining profit dollars come from content delivery such as e-books plus music and video downloads.  So traditional retail hard-goods still aren’t generating profits for Amazon.

It turns out, just as retailers like Wal-Mart, Target and K-Mart have discovered, that replicating a retail store online is almost always a money-losing proposition.

To underscore this point, Garnett references this example of a merchandising campaign in 2016 as typical:

“When one unit was sold on Amazon, eight were sold at the retailer’s website and 80 were sold in the brick-and-mortar stores. The profit is in the store. 

For mass-market products, brick-and-mortar still dominates. Amazon is a nice incremental revenue stream, [but] not a valid alternative when you’re playing in the big game.”

It also means that companies that are looking to Amazon as a way to push their products into the marketplace should probably think twice.

At the very least, they should keep their expectations realistically modest.

Online Shopping Trends: Going from “Go-Go” to “No-No”?

The easy growth for online shopping appears to be over, according to new research findings published by Boston Consulting Group.

bcgBCG just completed surveying ~3,300 Americans aged 15 to 85 about their online shopping habits across 41 merchandise categories. In every category, a clear majority of respondents report that they don’t plan to increase their online spending in the next three years.

Depending on the category, the percentage of people who do not plan to increase their online spending ranges from 78% to 92%.

And in some disparate categories ranging from food and beverages to packaged goods, fine jewelry, news media and automobiles, more than a quarter of the people already shopping online said that they actually plan to decrease their online spend over the upcoming three years.

opsoPerhaps even more surprising, the BCG survey results show similar findings regardless of generational groups — Baby Boomers, Gen-Xers and Millennials alike.

BCG has conducted other studies on this topic in the past, but reportedly this is the first time such low “future intention” figures have been collected, and it suggests that future e-commerce growth will be a good deal more challenging for many companies who offer their products and services for online purchase.

Here’s a quote from Michael Silverstein, a BCG senior partner and specialist in consumer shopping behaviors, speaking about the new research findings:

“Consumers are notoriously unable to predict their spending patterns. However, the findings from this research certainly pour cold water on everyone’s expectations for a continuously rising e-commerce world.  E-commerce winners will have to earn new dollars and new spending by providing new value.  That means me-too players will suffer — and leaders will need to provide more user-friendly websites, lower prices, and offers tailored to individual customers.”

There remain a few categories where people are planning to spend more online in the coming years.  However, they don’t represent physical products. Instead, those categories are airline tickets, hotel reservations, and entertainment ticket reservations.

Still, it’s interesting to see online commerce now entering its “mature” phase.  Those rapid, double-digit growth rates couldn’t go on forever — and indeed, they now look to be a thing of the past.

The mouse that roared: Smartphones take on bigger screens – and they’re winning.

The key takeaway message from MarketLive’s latest e-commerce statistics is that smartphones are where the go-go action is in e-commerce.

SmartphonesIf there’s any lingering doubt that smartphones are really on the march when it comes to e-commerce activity, the latest user stats are erasing all vestiges of it.

MarketLive’s 2nd Quarter e-commerce stats for 2015 reveal that mass-market consumers purchased ~335% more items via their smartphones than they did during the comparable quarter last year.

MarketLive’s report covers the buying activity of millions of online consumers. And the uptick it’s showing is actually more like a flood of increased activity.  That’s plain to see in these year-over-year 2nd Quarter comparative figures for smartphones:

  • Catalog merchandise: +374%
  • Merchandise sold by brick-and-mortar establishments’ online stores: +207%
  • Furnishings and houseware items: +163%

The critical mass that’s finally been reached is most likely attributable to these factors:

  • The growing number of “responsive-design” websites that display and work equally well on any size device
  • One-click purchasing functionality that simplify and ease e-commerce procedures

Interestingly, the dramatic growth in smartphone usage for online shopping appears to be skipping over tablets. Smartphones now account for more than twice the share of online traffic compared to tablets (~30% versus ~13%).

Total e-commerce dollar sales on tablets have also fallen behind smartphones for the first time ever.

Evidently, some people are now gravitating from desktops or laptops straight to smartphones, with nary a passing glance at tablets.

Another interesting data point among the MarketLive stats is the fact that traffic emanating from search (paid as well as organic), is actually on the decline.  By contrast, growth in traffic from e-mail marketing continues on its merry way, increasing ~18% over the same quarter last year.

One aspect remains a challenge in online commerce, however: The cart abandonment rate actually ticked up between 2014 and 2015. And conversion rates aren’t improving, either.

Marketlive logoFor the bottom line on what these new findings mean, I think Ken Burke, CEO of MarketLive, has it correct when he contends:

“Shoppers are seeking out their favorite brick-and-mortar brands online and expecting their websites to work on any device. We’re calling this trend ‘Commerce Anywhere the Customer Wants It.’ The more agile retailers and category leaders are outpacing their competitors by constantly adapting to – and embracing – a retail landscape where technology, consumers and markets are evolving at breakneck speed.” 

Details on MarketLive’s statistics can be accessed here.

Is Mobile Fraud Getting Set to Balloon?

mobileMobile commerce is the latest big development in e-commerce.  So it’s not surprising that nearly all companies engaged in e-commerce expect their mobile sales revenues to grow significantly over the next three to five years.

In fact, a new survey of ~250 such organizations conducted by IT services firm J. Gold Associates, Inc. finds that half of them anticipate their mobile revenue growth to be between 10% and 50% over the next three years.

Another 30% of the companies surveyed expect even bigger growth:  between 50% and 100% over the period.

So … how could there be any sort of negative aspect to this news?

One word:  Fraud.

Fraud in e-commerce is already with us, of course.  For mobile purchases made now, a third of the organizations surveyed by Gold Associates reported that fraud losses account for about 5% of their total mobile-generated revenues.

For an unlucky 15% of respondents, fraud makes up around 10% of their mobile revenues.

And for an even more miserable 15%, the fraud losses are a whopping 25% of their total mobile revenues.

Risk management firm LexisNexis Risk Solutions has also been crunching the numbers on e-commerce fraud.  It’s found that mobile fraud grew at a 70% rate between 2013 and 2014.

That’s a disproportionately high rate, as it turns out, because mobile commerce makes up ~21% of all fraudulent transactions tracked by LexisNexis, even though mobile makes up only ~14% of all e-commerce transactions.

The propensity for fraud to happen in mobile commerce is likely related to the dynamics of mobile communications.  Unlike desktops, laptops and tablets, “throwaway” phone devices are a fact of life, as are the plethora of carriers — some of them distinctly less reputable than others.

fraudsterConsidering the growth trajectory of mobile e-commerce, doubtless there will be efforts to rein in the incidence of fraud – particularly via analyzing the composition and source of cellphone data.

Some of the data attributes that are and will continue to be the subject of real-time scrutiny include the following “red flags”:

>   A phone number being assigned to non-contracted carrier instead of a contracted one means the propensity for fraud is higher. 

>   Mobile traffic derived from subprime offers could be a fraud breeding-ground. 

>   Multiple cellphones (five or more) associated with the same physical address can be a strong indicator of throwaway phones and fraudulent activity. 

The question is whether this degree of monitoring will be sufficient to keep the incidence of mobile fraud from “exploding” – to use Gold Associates’ dramatic adjective.

I think the jury’s out on that one … but what do you think?

It’s Official: Cyber Monday 2014 was the Biggest e-Commerce Day in U.S. History

Cyber Monday ShoppingIn the days following Black Friday this year, we heard reports that consumer purchase volumes at stores were down more than 10% compared to 2013.

A number of explanations for the decline were given, among them the notion that Black Friday sales are less of a draw this year, since merchandise sales now begin before Thanksgiving and tend to run the entire month of December.

But some observers speculated as to whether soft Black Friday revenue figures presage an equally soft holiday shopping season overall.

Well … now that we have sales figures from Cyber Monday (the Monday following Black Friday weekend), I think it’s safe to say that any concerns about a tepid holiday buying season are unfounded.

Custora E-Commerce Pulse, a customer relationship management firm which tracked more than 100 million online shoppers and over $40 billion in e-commerce revenue over the full Thanksgiving Holiday weekend, has just reported that Cyber Monday e-commerce revenues were up over 15% compared with Cyber Monday 2013.

That makes Cyber Monday 2014 the single biggest day in U.S. online shopping ever in history.

Other days of the Thanksgiving weekend also showed robust gains in online shopping:  Black Friday online sales were up ~21% over 2013, and online shopping on Thanksgiving Day itself were up nearly 18% over Thanksgiving Day in 2013.

The strong growth was fueled by mobile shopping, e-mail marketing, plus online product searches on Google and other search engines.

In particular, mobile shopping accounted for ~22% of orders on Cyber Monday, significantly higher than the ~16% of orders recorded last year.

On Black Friday itself, mobile shopping accounted for around 30% of all orders — yet another dramatic increase over 2013 when mobile shopping account for just shy of 23% of orders.

This year’s Cyber Monday stats put the lie to the notion that e-mail marketing is losing its luster.  In fact, e-mail marketing drove nearly one in four online shopping orders, outstripping natural search (at ~19% of all orders) and paid search (~16% of orders).

Much ado about (practically) nothing: Social media and Cyber Monday.
Much ado about (practically) nothing: Social media and Cyber Monday.

And guess which channels weren’t a meaningful part of the holiday shopping experience this year?

If you guessed social media … you’re absolutely correct.

Taken together, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram accounted for only about 1.5% of online e-commerce orders on Cyber Monday.  (For the weekend as a whole, it was only slightly better at ~1.7%.)

This year’s statistics just add more confirmation of several truisms about online consumer marketing:

  • Targeted e-mail still works the best.
  • Online search is important.
  • Social media is like Lucy and the football.

Amazon’s (Somewhat) Surprising Shopping Stats

Shoppin on AmazonOver the years, Amazon has branched out greatly from its original focus on books and other media to offer all sorts of other merchandise.

In fact, these days people can buy pretty much anything on Amazon — assuming it’s legal.

Even so, I was somewhat surprised to read the tea leaves on some new findings released by Chicago-based Consumer Intelligence Research Partners.  This research firm surveyed ~1,100 Amazon customers, asking them about their most recent purchases on Amazon.

Categorizing the responses by type of merchandise, CIRP found that books are no longer the most popular products sold on Amazon.

Instead, pride of place now goes to top-ranked electronics products, with ~33% of the survey respondents reporting that those types of products were their most recent purchase on the site.

Books still maintain their high ranking; the category comes in second at ~20% of respondents.  (Incidentally, approximately one-third of those book purchases are e-books.)

Amazon’s Fresh service, which delivers groceries within 24 hours of ordering, has been operating in select West Coast cities for some time now — and it appears that the company has latched onto a winning formula.

In fact, the grocery category ranked third in the survey.

This surprised me:  Call me old school, but I still prefer to select my fresh meats and produce on my own, instead of relying on some anonymous “picker” to do it for me.

What were the bottom three merchandise categories found in the CIRP survey?  Sports-related purchases were low  … and music purchases were lower still (about half of them being music downloads, by the way).

Dead last is the automotive category.  No real surprise here, I don’t think.

Personally, I don’t know anyone who would feel comfortable purchasing a car online.  And since the vast majority of consumers don’t work on their cars either, it seems natural that most of them will continue to rely on their repair shops to procure the replacement parts and consumables they need for servicing their vehicles.

If you have particular merchandise you like to buy through Amazon — or if there is something really unusual that you’ve purchased from the site, please share your experiences with other readers here.