The Nielsen//NetRatings Holiday eShopping Index shows the number of U.S. shoppers online rose 11 percent year over year on the day after Thanksgiving, the biggest store-based shopping day of the year, also known as Black Friday.
But that jump does not impress Ken Cassar, director of strategic analysis at Nielsen//NetRatings, the New York market researcher that measures unique online traffic.
“I see the 11 percent increase as on the lower side of what I may have expected based upon the pre-season holiday [e-commerce] forecasts from other firms,” he said. “It's possible that people bought earlier this holiday season than last holiday season. It's also possible that people will buy later this holiday season.”
Visitor traffic numbers should not speak for actual e-commerce transactions over the Thanksgiving period. An estimate from comScore Networks, Chicago, claims online retail sales rose 35 percent for the Nov. 22-26 week to $1.23 billion compared with the year-ago period.
Thanksgiving Day alone accounted for $133 million in online sales, doubling the $67 million spent last year on that day, comScore said. Online sales this Black Friday totaled $250 million, up 41 percent from $178 million in 2003. Nov. 27-28 data will be released today.
ComScore monitors actual online buying behavior based on a panel of 1.5 million consumers in the United States and 2 million overseas.
“Bear in mind that sales during the Thanksgiving weekend [are] not generally thought of as particularly strong compared to other weekends, and especially weekdays,” said Graham Mudd, senior analyst at comScore. “I would not rely on traffic figures as a proxy for actual sales.”
Online sales last year on the Saturday and Sunday after Thanksgiving were a combined $310 million. They totaled $460 million the next weekend.
Even Cassar agrees that expectations for Black Friday online to match offline are overestimated, especially for online traffic numbers.
“When I look at [online] traffic over the years, the Sunday following Thanksgiving has been a bigger day in traffic than Black Friday,” he said.
Evidence suggests strong e-commerce sales on Thanksgiving Day and Black Friday may be driven by increased home broadband penetration. Such speedy Internet connections make online shopping faster and more convenient.
“Fifty percent of the online population has broadband connection at home, and we've seen that broadband users spend 50 percent more than their narrowband counterparts,” Mudd said.
A survey by Bigresearch for the National Retail Federation claims 133 million shoppers spent an estimated $22.8 billion Nov. 25-28. Sales were across all channels, including stores, e-commerce and catalog. NRF predicts holiday sales across all channels will grow 4.5 percent this year to $219.9 billion.
However, there is no way for NRF to know whether sales this Thanksgiving weekend were up or down compared with last year.
“There's no comparable data available for Thanksgiving weekend last year,” said Ellen Tolley, director of media relations at NRF, Washington. “The question was not asked last year in the [trade association's] survey.”
This lack of data does not mask that consumers did shop online in large numbers this Black Friday, if tracking by Nielsen//NetRatings holds true.
Auction platform eBay was the No. 1 online-shopping destination, with 5.4 million unique visitors Nov. 26 this year, followed by Amazon's 2.6 million and Walmart.com's 1.4 million. Target.com attracted 923,000 unique visitors, and BestBuy.com had 847,000.
The next five most-shopped destinations were Yahoo Shopping's 818,000 unique visitors, Shopping.com network's 702,000, Overstock.com's 675,000, Sears.com's 645,000 and toysrus.com's 642,000.
Nielsen//NetRatings said 26 percent more shoppers, or 13.3 million people, visited e-commerce sites Nov. 26 versus the previous Friday, Nov. 19.
Toys and video games were the fastest-growing categories on Black Friday, up 152 percent in visitors at home versus the previous Friday. Consumer electronics rose 94 percent. Comparison-shopping sites and portals saw a 75 percent jump in traffic. Hardware and software generated a 54 percent increase in unique visitors at home. Books, music and video were up 50 percent.
The fastest-growing categories online, the market researcher stated, were those related to traditional gifts that are easy to find and buy.
Nielsen//NetRatings' Holiday eShopping Index tracks shopping activity across 109 representative retailers in 10 retail categories.
Another report from online monitoring service Hitwise, New York, said shopping and classifieds sites drew 11.39 percent of all U.S. visits on Thanksgiving Day, up from 8.96 percent in the year-ago period.
U.S. visits to retail sites crossed 10 percent of total Internet traffic for the first time, Hitwise claims. The respective percentages for Black Friday and Saturday, Nov. 27, were 11.03 percent and 10.74 percent.
Hitwise collects online-use information from Internet service provider data partnerships and opt-in panels. This helps the company track how 25 million-plus online shoppers interact with 500,000 Web sites in 160 industry categories.
Data from Hitwise suggest Thanksgiving was the busiest shopping day of the year to date. U.S. visits to the overall shopping category on Thanksgiving Day rose 27 percent versus the year-ago period. Shopping visits on Black Friday grew 24 percent year over year.
“The dichotomy of visits to retail sites suggests that consumers are researching higher-ticket items such as computers and electronics on Thanksgiving before heading out to stores on Friday,” Hitwise vice president of research Bill Tancer said in a statement. “Conversely, non-tech items like home goods, books and beauty continue to dominate online shopping traffic on Black Friday.”
A recent JupiterResearch survey claims that online retail sales will exceed $21.5 billion for the holiday season, a 19 percent increase over 2003. The New York-based market researcher expects new online buyers and higher spending per person to drive holiday e-commerce this year.
An estimated 86.1 million online holiday shoppers will spend an average of $250 per person, JupiterResearch said. This is up from 73.3 million shoppers spending an average of $247 per person in 2003. The 2002 numbers included an average of $257 per person spent by 53.6 million people.
JupiterResearch's estimate for online retail spend per buyer exceeds one-third of the $702.03 that the average U.S. consumer plans to spend this holiday season across all channels, according to a forecast by Bigresearch for NRF.