Some holiday shopping habits die hard and others are a fleeting. Datacember looks at how we're changing — and not — as we enter retailers' busiest time.
It really is the most wonderful time of the year. The signs are everywhere: The sun low in the sky. Decorative lights shining. Familiar songs playing. Car commercials featuring autos with bows on top. Malls open 24 hours a day. It could mean only one thing: Datacember. This storied tradition, which started, OK, a year ago, is a chance to celebrate the most important season in the retail world in the most meaningful way we know how: With stories about what the data is showing. The BloomReach blog will feature stories throughout the month that explore holiday shopping trends (and maybe drinking trends, and accident trends and Santa sightings and the like) through the lens of data. Grab a mug of eggnog — leaded or unleaded — and we’ll take a look at shopping trends that surfaced over the long Thanksgiving weekend, which was once the traditional start of the holiday shopping season. In some ways the early data shows we are creatures of habit — at least habits that we started noticing last year. But there are also some emerging trends, including what appears to be a waning desire to bust physical doors on Black Friday morning. Some were beginning to think it was called “Black Friday” because it was pitch dark when the masses headed out. Not this year, apparently. While Datacember itself has warned against reading trends into one-off observations, plenty of observers were saying BF got off to a slow start this year. These sources include my wife and daughter who visited an eerily quiet mall in the Washington D.C. suburbs. They also included NPD Group retail expert Marshall Cohen, who wrote that stores were quieter than he’d seen in 40 years of Black Friday mornings. He even noted that he returned to the same store (same register apparently) that he’d visited for 15 straight years. The line of seven shoppers there was one-tenth what it was last year. Here’s an interesting corollary: Based on BloomReach data, traffic to e-commerce sites on Black Friday peaked just before 8:30 a.m. Pacific time, allowing enough time to sleep in a little on what is a day off for many, brew a cup of coffee and fire up the laptop or mobile phone. A secondary peak, representing 11.4 percent less traffic than the height of the day, arrived just before 7:30 p.m., leaving the possibility that shoppers started online in the morning, hit the stores mid-day and returned to digital shopping after dinner. Speculation? A bit. But consider that more people shopped online than in stores on Black Friday this year, according to the National Retail Federation. And there were scattered anecdotal reports that crowds did pick up later in the day on Black Friday, including at that Washington D.C. area mall, according to local traffic reports. Overall the day is a microcosm of why retailers have worked so hard to create shopping experiences that move seamlessly from digital tools like laptops and smartphones to in-store trips up and down their aisles. Now on to the creatures of habit portion of our program. Thanksgiving Day, which used to be for eating Turkey, stuffing and pumpkin pie; visiting with relatives, often uncomfortably; and watching football; is now also a day for shopping. Big time. Yes stores are open and ready for the after-dinner crowd. But it’s also a big day online. We can almost picture diners, sneaking looks at their smartphones under the table as they look to score that big holiday deal. The peak of Thanksgiving e-commerce traffic came within 77 percent of Black Friday’s peak. The Thanksgiving peak, by the way, came at 7:24 p.m., conveniently situated after dinner and during halftime of the last nationally televised NFL game of the day. We saw a similar peak last year. And, as consumers, we remained set in our ways on Cyber Monday, as well. Not that we’ve never changed. You might recall that Cyber Monday was originally christened more than a decade ago by marketers at Shop.org, when they realized that plenty of folks returned to work after the Thanksgiving weekend and made use of faster connections to supplement their in-store shopping with online shopping. At some point, we appear to have mended our ways. Cyber Monday’s peak came just after 6:30 p.m., a time when most were presumably home from work. In fact, there was a secondary peak on Cyber Monday. You know when it was? 11:48 a.m., a time we’ll charitably call “lunch time,” meaning workers were on their own time while shopping, kind of, sort of. The post-work surge in e-commerce traffic repeats a pattern that we saw last year. We concluded last year that consumers would rather shop on their couch than in their cubes. Seems the couch is still looking pretty good. So what does all this mean to retailers? It’s a little hard to draw hard and fast conclusions from the early days. But one thing to think about is that as consumers become much more in control of when and how they shop, patterns are sure to emerge. Is it worth considering retiring doorbuster promotions on Black Friday for promotions that go down easy with a cup of coffee at the kitchen table? What about a halftime special during that annual Thanksgiving prime time football game? Again it’s early and we’ve barely scratched the surface. But as the month goes on we'll continue to drill into the substantial bank of data we have here at Datacember Central. For now, it’s probably best to ease into the numerical festivities. Wouldn’t want to pull anything. Photo of Macy's by Mike Cassidy. Source for chart: a subset of BloomReach data. Mike Cassidy is BloomReach's storyteller. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow him on Twitter at @mikecassidy.