Changing Buying Behaviors: Clues from Thanksgiving Weekend 2017

If there was any doubt that we’re in the midst of fundamental changes in consumer buying behaviors, the results from the opening days of the 2017 holiday season have put such questions to rest.

Movable Ink, a firm that enables content personalization within e-mails, has just published some insightful statistics it compiled from Thanksgiving weekend last month.  Movable Ink logged nearly 438 million e-mail opens between the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and the following Cyber Monday. What did it find?

To start with, it found that recipients engaged with them.

Of the e-mails sent on Black Friday, nearly 50% achieved read lengths of at least 15 seconds. On Cyber Monday, the results were nearly the same (~46%).

Fifteen seconds may not seem like a long time to engage with an e-mail, but it’s light years compared to what is often experienced in consumer e-retail.

Movable Ink also found that the majority of the e-mails were opened on smartphones — far outstripping desktops and tablets:

  • Smartphones: ~53% of e-mail opens
  • Desktop computers: ~25%
  • Tablet opens: ~16%

An equal 53% of conversion actions happened on smartphones … but desktop conversions proved to be higher than their open stats, and e-mails opened on tablets were much less likely to experience conversions:

  • Smartphone: ~53% of e-mail conversions
  • Desktop computers: ~38%
  • Tablets: ~8%

Consumers were certainly in a buying mood over the holiday weekend, with purchases averaging between $120 and $140 on each of the four days of the long weekend:

  • Black Friday: An average of $124 spent
  • Saturday: $120
  • Sunday: $119
  • Cyber Monday: $141

However, while smartphones led in terms of e-mail engagement, when it comes to actual dollar sales smartphones come in last – by a country mile:

  • Desktop computers: ~$162 average holiday weekend total spend
  • Tablets: ~$107
  • Smartphones: ~$85

We can acknowledge that smartphones have become the most important method for reaching consumers with product content, coupons and special offers.  And yet, significantly more purchasing continues to happen on desktops.

One takeaway is that for all of the convenience smartphones purport to provide, the purchasing experience on mobile devices doesn’t yet match the experience on desktop computers.

It would also help if there was more similarity between the purchasing process sellers are delivering across all platforms. That continues to be a missing ingredient with some sellers, and it’s likely explaining at least some of the dampening effect on mobile sales revenues.

Diamonds in the rough: Retail jewelry stores take a hit.

As disruption wends its way through the retail marketplace, jewelers are the latest sector being upended.

In the world of retail, it makes total sense that e-commerce would be making certain sectors such as traditional bookstores a thing of the past. After all, the products they sell are identical to what’s available online — even down to the UPC barcode.

The only difference is a higher price tag – along with a few other impediments like store hours, the hassles of parking and the like.

But as time’s gone on, it’s become clear that the impact of e-commerce is affecting shopping behaviors in retail segments that might never have been thought to be susceptible.

Consider retail fine jewelry. If ever there was a segment where consumers could be expected to want to “see and feel” the merchandise prior to purchasing, it would seem to be this one.

However, a recent analysis by gem and jewelry industry specialist Polygon has found that the U.S. retail jewelry industry is reeling from the triple phenomenon of falling diamond prices, store closures and a liquidity crunch that has persisted since 2016.

Super-competitive pricing offered by online-only retailers and their foreign suppliers has put relentless pressure on gem prices at every step in the supply chain, it turns out. Profit margins have slipped badly as a result.

Consequently, an increasing number of jewelry businesses in the United States have found that economics of maintaining physical stores just aren’t working out.  Since 2014. a raft of store closures has affected both independents and chain operations.

At the top of the supply chain, the biggest international producers of gems are responding to the industrywide pressures by cutting costs through mine closures, employee layoffs and assets sales. Probably the most prominent example of this is Anglo-American PLC, which laid off more than 85,000 workers at the beginning of this year, along with putting more than 60% of the company’s assets up for sale.

Par for the course, the relative bright spot in the overall picture is online jewelry sales. Online is taking up the slack of the other channels – but at lower sticker prices.  Online retail sales of fine jewelry continue to grow in the high single-digits, even as the rest of the industry struggles mightily to maintain a business model that has become precarious in the new “online everything” world of retail.

I have my doubts that jewelry stores will disappear completely from the shopping malls, like we’ve seen happen with retailers of movies and music. But the days of a jewelry store outlet anchoring every major crossroads intersection at the shopping mall are probably history.

More information on the Polygon report can be found here.

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?