eCommerce vs. Brick and Mortar: What Last Year’s Holiday Figures Tell Us About the Future of Commerce

We’re going to cover the following topics:

  • Sales Were Up But Habits Are Changing
    • Online Sales Grow 11% in the US
    • US Brick-And-Mortar Concerned with 2.7% Growth
  • Amazon’s Record Sales and Device Success
    • Will Voice-Based Shopping Dominate?
    • 2% of Digital Procrastinators
  • Declines Hit the Department Store
    • Macy’s
    • Sears and Kmart
    • Insight from CVS’ Closure Plans
  • The 4 Big 2016 Takeaways
    • Convenience Trumps Almost Everything
    • Compete with Experiences
    • Have a Digital Backbone
    • Days Matter


Sales Were Up But Habits Are Changing


The world of shopping is going through the same shift that the mail, libraries, and banks have already experienced: digital and mobile will disrupt almost all assumptions we have and will either support services (apps showing your balance) or decimate them (Google is the modern Dewey Decimal).


Mastercard’s SpendingPulse says that total retail sales rose 4% from November 1 through December 24. That’s a bit above the 3.6% growth estimate from the National Retail Federation. It’s also a nice boost over the 3.2% increase that was experienced in the same time during 2015.

The good news is that in-store sales were up overall during the holiday, the bad news for them is that they’re being outperformed by online sales.

Fortune estimates that online holiday sales grew eight times faster online compared to in-store sales growth.

Broad trends in most major sectors are that growth is occurring, but not always enough to put investors or business owners at ease. Clothing had an incredibly hard start to winter as the market segment’s sales rose only 0.1%. Appliances and electronics were up 8.5%.

This tough going for clothes is probably a big reason that we’re seeing threats to department stores and more apparel-centered storefronts.

Shoppers choosing online purchases and walking into fewer stores has shifted the retail landscape in profound ways, and not even the most established brands are guaranteed safe.

The holiday season also showed a mix of spending habits that will need more time to fully discover. For example, 64% of Americans who made an online purchase picked up their goods in the store and then made another in-store purchase during the weekend after Thanksgiving.


Online Sales Grow 11% in the US


Online sales are continuing their upward tick with at least an 11% growth for the 2016 holiday season. More than 21% of all holiday spending this season was done online, compared to just 15.4% in 2015. Whether it’s avoiding crowds or having more time to shop, it seems to be a trend that’s only going up.

Packages and shipping might give us the most surprising insight into how much online shopping has grown. UPS said it believes it will have delivered 14% more packages in 2016 because of the rise of online shopping to reach past the 700 million mark. FedEx also projected a 10% bump overall.

However, UPS also gives us a good idea that sales forecasts may trend down as more data comes out, as the brand expects to have shipped 5.8 million packages back to retailers during the first week of January.

Amazon was far-and-away the leader in the digital space.

It secured roughly 38% of the total online sales market for the US 2016 holiday season, while the next closest competitor was Best Buy at just 4% of the market.

Target has the potential to be a sign of hope for retailers based on its Black Friday deals, but much of this is focused on its digital footprint. Target reported its largest online shopping days ever during its “10 Days of Deals” promotion running from November 22 to December 1.

Online demand was significant enough to crash Target’s website during high demand. The company offered free shipping on all of its online purchases through Christmas, which is seen to have been a successful tactic.


2016 holiday season retail stats, infographic


US Brick-And-Mortar Concerned with 2.7% Growth


Traditional retail stores felt a significant blow to the growth they needed to remain viable, even when their online stores performed especially well.


For example: J.C. Penny Co. had physical retail sales fall 0.8% for its nine-week block that included November and December, but it’s online platform had a double-digit growth.


When looking across research that’s come out for the holiday, brick-and-mortar chains had sales decline 12% in November. December was mixed, with traffic down 12% but the average transaction ticked up 5%. That pegs the growth for the period at roughly 2.7%.

It’s important to note that net sales were down 10% compared to 2015, and firms such as RetailNext say the overall growth is largely due to a 6.5% sales increase in the final days before Christmas. Its report notes that the average shopper was spending 11% more during that week across all channels.


Retail Bright Spots

Many big box retailers have announced dismal results, especially for their brick-and-mortar locations.

However, there were some interesting brands who bucked the trend:

Lululemon had a “strong” holiday season in stores and digital channels with mid-single digit same-store sales increases, increasing its Q4 guidance minimum by $10 million to the $775m-$785m range.

Ollie’s Bargain Outlet had a good season in its discounter locations with holiday sales showing a 16.3% gain overall, plus a 1.9% comparable store growth.

PVH Corp. recently raised its earning guidance thanks to the success of its Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein, and Van Heusen brands’ performance, even in department stores.

Gap posted a 2% increase in sales across its footprint for November and December compared to the year earlier. Same-store sales rose 1% and 12% for its Gap and Old Navy brands, respectively. That appears to be the first such monthly Old Navy gain since early 2014.

Urban Outfitters had same-store sales rise 1.5% in November and December, led by gains in Urban Outfitters and Free People brands.

Here’s what helped, according to analysts:

  • Wages are higher by about 2.5% compared to 2015 and continue to grow compared to recent years
  • Overall employment continues on an upward trend, with unemployment reaching its lowest level in nine years in November, according to Labor Department data
  • Gas prices remain low — this statistic may lose some significance in the future as the oil and gas industries are starting to hire more Americans and make up a greater part of GDP in the US.
  • Consumer confidence levels in December hit their highest level since August 2001.


Amazon’s Record Sales and Device Success


Amazon had its “best ever” holiday season and noted a wide range of purchase stats including

  • users buying enough luggage to fill 20 Boeing 747s
  • and enough 4K TVs to reach the peak of Mount Everest more than 9 times over.
  • Customers bought a watch, on average, every 1.5 seconds during the holiday season to the tune of 2.5 million.


The company didn’t divulge specific sales figures — keeping in line with past years — but the increase in purchases is worth noting as the company counts a growing number of Amazon Prime members. The Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) published a November study that says nearly half of all U.S. households are Prime members.

Slice Intelligence’s market research suggests that Amazon grabbed 38% of the online market share in the 2016 holiday season, up only slightly from 37.9% the year before.

The growth in overall online shopping means that a small bump was able to deliver a significant set of gains for Amazon — for clarification sake, the data suggests Amazon would’ve needed to increase sales by $200 million year-over-year to grow just one percentage point.


Will Voice-Based Shopping Dominate?


The ILSR believes that, even before the holiday season, Amazon was accounting for roughly half of US online shopping in terms of spending, and that half of online shopping searches start on Amazon’s site or apps.

There is the potential for that last statistic to grow even higher, as the company notes that use of its mobile app grew by 56% during the 2016 holiday season. Users are spending more time in the Amazon ecosystem, which opens fewer doors for rivals — whether they’re digital or brick-and-mortar competitors.

As Amazon’s personal assistant devices grow in popularity, there is even less opportunity for rivals. Alexa makes purchases directly on Amazon and re-orders take place without any additional interface.


49.2% of Digital Procrastinators


“Digital has taught people they can wait to the last minute,” Forrester Principal Retail Analyst Brendan Witcher said recently, and Amazon was the biggest beneficiary.

According to research data from Slice Intelligence, 49.2% of people making an online purchase on the Monday before Christmas fired up Amazon. Most analysts believe this was due in large part to a combination of available goods and Amazon’s two-day shipping offers.

Amazon’s share of online sales was roughly 25% on Black Friday and saw a steady rise to December 19th. Christmas day was also strong for Amazon, securing 46.1% of online sales that day — there hasn’t been much reporting on the “cause” for this, but it is likely a combination of extra-last-minute shopping and consumers testing out those new Alexa devices.


Declines Hit the Department Store


The department store market is worth approximately $165 billion in annual sales, but revenue has continued to fall at an annualized rate of 3.5% since 2011. More than 51% of those sales come from apparel, a market segment that’s both declining and heading online.

But, when looking at this holiday season itself, department store sales were down nearly 4.8%.

Consumers heading to the mall are shifting their attitudes and seeking out a way to easily and quickly make their purchase. The one caveat, per Deutsche Bank, is when an apparel retailer is offering a deep discount, but that means always competing on sale prices in a segment that already had thin margins.


Store closures: Overall, Americans are also spending less on apparel and accessories, and this decline will have significant impacts in 2017. Morningstar Consumer Equity Strategist RJ Hottovy recently said that the market should expect consolidation and shifting competition as larger brands close stores en masse, with some retailers expected to file for bankruptcy.


Most major department stores have been slowly closing stores for a few years, with e-commerce competition getting much of the blame, and 2017 appears to have an accelerated path to turning out the lights.




As the holiday season came to an end, Macy’s announced it will be closing more than 70 stores ending 10,000 jobs due to a poor performance — these fall in line with its announcement last fall to close 100 stores in total — and are believed to be fueled by online competitors.

The company noted that sales declined 2.1% on a comparable store basis in November and December when compared to 2015. Macy’s also dipped its per-share earnings goal for fiscal 2016, which ends on January 28 for the company, from the $3.15 to $3.40 range down to the $2.95 to $3.10 range.

Jeff Gennette will take over as CEO in Q1 2017, though he isn’t expected to change from this series of closures.


Sears and Kmart


There are expected to be more than 50 Sears and Kmart store locations closed in the early part of this year, with liquidation sales at many of these locations already starting. Overall for its fiscal 2016, Sears will have closed more than 200 stores and leave it with less than 1,500 stores for the start of its fiscal 2017.

Sears has announced that revenue fell 13% in its most recent quarter, while losses grew from $454 million to $748 million. Same-store sales were down 7.4% on average across Sears and Kmart stores. That was the 20th straight quarter of missing sales and revenue targets.

Sears Holdings took out a $200 million secured standby letter of credit on December 29th in order to fund its operations.


Insight from CVS’ Closure Plans


CVS Health continues its push to becoming an integrated health care provider as much as a convenience store. This shift is causing the brand to look for cost-cutting measures, taking aim at an estimated 70 store closures in the beginning of 2017.

CVS’s decision-making was most likely not impacted by the recent holiday season. However, it’s shift toward healthcare services and related goods as a main revenue driver — especially as significant healthcare changes loom in the federal government — may point to the company’s change in thinking for more traditional models.

The brand hopes to develop a more consumer-oriented care model and put healthcare in a retail-like setting while scaling back in locations where it cannot deliver that value proposition.


Where Is It Going?Much of these sales are being cannibalized by online platforms, both from the digital channels for department stores as well as other competition.

Amazon deserves another mention because it is not only taking control of electronics and ‘smart’ stocking stuffers, but is reaching into the heart of these department stores: clothing and apparel.

Amazon has the potential to become the U.S. apparel retailer by the end of 2017 — not digital retailer, any retailer — with a projected 30% growth to reach $28 billion, according to Cowen and Co. That would give Amazon control of more than 8% of the market.


The 4 Big 2016 Takeaways


When it comes to the 2016 holiday, we’re looking at a growth of digital sales as well as strong returns for companies that run across multiple channels and make quicker market changes. There are four chief takeaways retailers should heed, some of which are in their controls and some that aren’t.


Convenience Trumps Almost Everything


Amazon is poised to become the largest American clothing retailer despite not having dressing rooms or a quick location to return goods or swap out for a larger size while you’re running your errands.


tips Shopper Survey: When asked why it was still so popular, despite not having these two traditional apparel staples, customers said that Amazon was more convenient and its free two-day shipping was a big advantage, per Cowen & Co. data. Rounding out its top benefit were the stellar customer service Amazon offers plus the ability to see a host of product reviews as users shop.


Amazon combines the ability to shop, do research, and solve problems in a single location, which you can access from any computer or smartphone, making it one of the most convenient shopping options possible today.

And, on those big deal days like Black Friday and Cyber Monday, you can do all that shopping in your PJs without having to stand in a single line.


Compete with Experiences


Brick-and-mortar retailers that are performing well are working to differentiate themselves from the online experience. They target shoppers who want more than just a quick experience and may need some additional help selecting their purchases.

Concierge services are designed to make customers feel special, and they are needed for big-ticket sales items.

Lululemon credits its shopping experience with leading to significant sales increases during the holiday season, engaging them across multiple channels.

Clubs and rewards memberships are common, but few have a significant benefit that customers can see each time they shop. Amazon was successful with the concept because its Prime membership takes away shipping costs for each and every sale.

In-store experiences don’t have as obvious a benefit, but a personal touch can improve and give the customer a reason to return. The personal relationship is able to drive that return visit if it feels helpful and treats the shopper as a unique individual.


This can even be seen in Millennials:

The best example is found in banking. Roughly 90% of Millennials have a relationship with a traditional financial institution. The customer service can make-or-break their banking relationship much more than other aspects.

“Millennials are typically not scouring the Internet to find the coolest free checking account… They’re looking for things they identify with,” notes Avidia Bank Assistant VP of Retail Operations and Strategy CarrieAnne Cormier.

They judge the bank based largely on whether or not it can create a connection with them. However, going back to our first takeaway, the bank does need a convenient location to be successful. It also needs digital services that are not frustrating, which dovetails to our next takeaway for brands.


Have a Digital Backbone


Selling in more locations, especially on digital, is a necessity.

And that seems to be true regardless of brand. Customers are demanding more online access, and having a bevy of locations could drive traffic based on sales and promotions, as well as other factors.

And, it may pay to have channels that you don’t completely own. During the holiday season, Amazon had a 70% increase in third-party sellers using its Fulfillment by Amazon service. That did put them in the giant’s grasp, but Amazon shipping 50% more items from third parties means their products were delivered in two days and likely put under more trees and in more hands.


Days Matter

Our final takeaway is simple, but it’s also the reason there was a collective sigh of relief from most retailers this holiday: a few extra days can make all the difference.

The week before Christmas was the biggest in terms of point-of-sale results for most merchandise categories, both in-store and online.

Total dollar sales for the eighth week of the holiday season were up 16% compared to the same time in 2015.

This is important because this holiday season was 1% behind the 2015 holiday season leading into week eight.

The week ending December 24th saw sales of toys increase 26%, apparel 17%, high-end fragrances 16% and technology 11%.

Compared to the year before, the 2016 holiday season had two more shopping days; a shipping deadline that likely forced more people into physical stores to pick up goods bought online as well as last-minute; and had a later Hanukkah shopping season — Hanukkah was Dec. 6 through 14 in 2015.

This combined  “more than made up for what was lost in prior weeks,” says NPD Chief Industry Analyst, Marshal Cohen.

The final boost for retailers might have come from timing, beyond their control, and we could be looking at a much lower growth rate if things were slightly different. Sometimes, it all comes down to a little luck.


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