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3 important ways online shopping will be different this holiday season

Goods are displayed on shopping app. (Xaume Olleros/Bloomberg News)

This holiday season, it’s a near certainty that online shopping — not brick-and-mortar mall visits — will be the key driver of sales growth for the retail industry.

So what exactly does the online shopper want, and when will they be pouncing on it? A new report from Adobe, whose software runs under thousands of retail websites, helps provide some insight. The analysis is based on 1 trillion visits to 4,500 e-commerce sites, as well as responses to a customer survey. Here, we break down some of its most revealing findings.

1. The reasons people are opting for online shopping are changing. Amazon famously climbed to the top of the Internet heap by focusing intensively on offering the lowest prices. And yet, when people turn to the so-called everything store this holiday season, there’s a good chance that penny-pinching is not what brought them there. In addition to collecting data about online transactions, Adobe surveyed consumers about their shopping behavior. When asked about their reasons for shopping on the Web instead of in physical stores, some fascinating differences emerged between this year and last.

In 2015, 66 percent of respondents said they shopped online because they believed they’d get lower prices and good deals. This year, just 55 percent of shoppers gave that answer. Last year, some 56 percent of people said free shipping was a reason to shop online; this time around, that slipped to 50 percent. In other words, fewer people are choosing online because they perceive it to be a value play.

Meanwhile, convenience-related factors proved increasingly potent in getting people to buy online. Some 24 percent of shoppers said they chose online so they didn’t have to deal with traffic or lines, up from 20 percent last year. Greater shares of shoppers also said they turned to digital shopping because of the product availability, product variety or the ability to make purchases at work.

This provides some semblance of validation for the many convenience-oriented offerings that retailers have been hustling to bring to a wider audience: Walmart continues to test Shipping Pass, a membership program that is an answer to Amazon Prime; while Amazon keeps rolling out same-day and one-hour delivery in more and more markets. (Jeffrey P. Bezos, the chief executive of Amazon, owns The Washington Post.)

2. Procrastinators will play a key role in driving online sales growth. For years, online shopping has hewed to a familiar pattern between Black Friday and Christmas: It’s full-speed ahead until roughly Dec. 20, when many chains yank their free shipping offers and start making you pay for guaranteed Dec. 24 delivery. Then the online channel would start to slow down a bit. This year, though, Adobe projects that some of the strongest sales growth will come in the final innings of the game. The forecast calls for 24 percent year-over-year sales growth in the last two weeks of December. That’s a sharply higher rate than the 9.4 percent uptick it expects to see on Cyber Monday, or the 11.3 percent bump it expects on Black Friday.

Tamara Gaffney, a principal analyst at Adobe, said there are a couple of reasons for this. For one, retailers have made logistics improvements that allow them to get packages to shoppers faster, so they can extend their cutoffs for free or guaranteed shipping. Also, many stores are heavily promoting “buy online, pick up in store” options, which give shoppers more leeway to fill their digital carts all the way to Christmas Eve.

 3. Mobile traffic to shopping sites will overtake desktop traffic. In some ways, this feels inevitable, given all the time we spend glued to our phones. But after several years of strong traffic growth on smartphones, Adobe predicts that our smallest screens will finally be king, accounting for 53 percent of all visits to retail websites during the holiday season. That will shoot even higher on certain days: On Christmas, for example, when many of us are opening presents and carving a ham with family, 66 percent of traffic is expected to come from phones.

This shift, though, comes with a tricky challenge for retailers. People tend to place smaller orders from their mobile devices than they do on desktops. Adobe has found that the average order value from a phone is $120, compared with $155 for a desktop. Customers are also more likely on a phone to abandon their shopping carts before making a purchase. To deal with this problem, Gaffney said she expects to see an unprecedented amount of re-targeted advertising this holiday season — you know, those ads that seem to follow you around the Internet for days or weeks that feature a product you’ve clicked on once before.

More from The Washington Post:

How Walmart aims to get you through checkout lines faster

Target’s plan to win Christmas

Are retailers in for a good holiday season? Here’s what we know so far.

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