A First Look at Holiday Shopping Trends

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Putting together a few early research reports gives us some idea of how this year’s holiday shopping season is likely to shake out for retailers. This year’s jump in online sales is the big news, particularly the sharp increase in shopping from mobile devices like tablets and smartphones. An early report on overall sales — online and in stores — indicates that while sales rose, the rise was somewhat smaller than expected.

SpendingPulse, a MasterCard-owned shopper tracking service, reported that sales rose 3.5% through December 24. The National Retail Federation had forecast a gain of 3.9%. SpendingPulse noted that jewelry and children’s apparel showed strong sales, while sales of other luxury items and electronics were flat with a year ago. Big discounts were needed to entice customers into the stores and to encourage them to reach for their wallets.

According to IBM’s Digital Analytics Benchmark, mobile traffic as a percentage of all Internet traffic reached a seasonal peak on Christmas Day. Nearly half of all traffic — 48% — came from mobile devices. Online sales on Christmas Day rose 16.5% compared with Christmas Day a year ago, and mobile sales accounted for nearly 29% of all sales, up 40% from a year ago.

As has been true throughout the holiday season, more purchases were made from tablets than smartphones, although smartphones were used more heavily for browsing. Tablet sales were also higher, averaging more than $95 per sale, compared with an average ticket of $85 for smartphone purchases.

The burst of activity on Christmas Day probably helped to make up for the weak sales on the last weekend of the shopping season. Overall, online sales are up 10% year-over-year, from $38.91 billion to $42.75 billion, according to comScore. Sales on the weekend of December 21 and 22 were weaker than expected, however:

Our expectations for the online holiday shopping season anticipated that consumers would spend heavily later into the season out of necessity to make up for the highly compressed holiday shopping calendar this year. Unfortunately that was not in the cards, as the final online shopping week saw considerably softer sales than anticipated, including zero billion dollar spending days — although Monday and Tuesday came close.

The category that gained the most in online sales was video game consoles and accessories, followed by apparel, consumer electronics, computer hardware and home and garden. The new Xbox One from Microsoft Corp. (NASDAQ: MSFT) and the PlayStation 4 from Sony Corp. (NYSE: SNE) were clearly responsible for the boost to console sales this year.

The surge in mobile device use for both browsing and buying is the top story for this holiday season. The second-most important story is that buying consumer electronics gear online is more popular than ever. The third will be whether retailers managed to make a profit after marking prices down so early, so often and so much.