Here's a Surprising Retail Data Point

5 minute read
Erika Morphy avatar
Retailers that closed their stores over Thanksgiving did measurably better online than their competitors, SimilarWeb reports.

The stats coming out of the Thanksgiving weekend-Cyber Monday retail Bacchanalia are, for the most part, a reflection of long-standing trends. For the most part.

Stores were swamped by eager bargain hunters — nearly 102 million people according to the National Retail Federation — but the online crowd proved to be stronger at 103 million.

Cyber Monday was the usual online traffic jam: Adobe Digital Index reports that it was the largest online sales day ever (emphasis theirs) with consumers spending a record $3.07 billion, 16 percent more than last year.

Nothing, in short, happened to change the overall narrative about retail and online commerce that has been emerged over the last decade.

Until, that is now. Tel Aviv-headquartered SimilarWeb reports that US retailers that closed their stores on Thanksgiving and Black Friday outperformed competitors online.

Slight Bump?

Now, to be clear, it is logical that these retailers might experience a slight bump in online sales on the days that their stores are closed, maybe from loyal customers who wanted to shop there no matter what. But SimilarWeb's numbers are no "slight bump."

REI's website saw a 10 percent increase in combined web and desktop in one-day traffic on Thanksgiving, followed by a further 26 percent one-day rise on Black Friday. In short, customers opted to continue shopping, despite the home page on Friday informing customers that all 143 stores were closed and urging them to 'join us outside'.

GameStop saw a one-day Thanksgiving rise of 132 percent; Staples, 120 percent; PetSmart, 69 percent; and Nordstrom and Pier 1 Imports both recorded a 54 percent one-day rise in traffic.

"In a year-over-year comparison, the retailers who closed their stores performed better than their leading competitors," Pascal Cohen, digital insights manager with SimilarWeb, said.

"In addition, day over day they also performed better for visits."

Now I know what you are thinking: online sales were heightened during those days anyway. Yes, that is true, but not by triple digit figures.

Online sales through the Thanksgiving Day weekend rose by 17 percent year over year, according to Adobe Digital Index.

Partial Explanations

Of course, there are plausible, albeit partial, explanations for some of this.

Some of these stores, such as Staples and PetSmart, aren’t exactly the type of retail establishment shoppers will rush to at 5 am to score door buster bargains on, say, kitty litter and print cartridges. But they’ll log online to pick up discounted products.

And with gaming trending more and more to online, closing its retail stores on Thanksgiving seemed a logical bet for GameStop.

But I have to admit, REI, Nordstrom and Pier 1 Imports numbers are true head-scratchers as to where they fit in the larger narrative about shopping patterns, consumer attitudes and online commerce.

Could it be true that — gasp! — consumers really are sick of the commercialization around the holidays? Has Black Friday become an anachronism?

Before we leap to crazy and industry-killing conclusions though, let’s take a step back.

Generally speaking, it is smart to take these initial retail figures with a generous helping of salt. An excellent post at the FiveThirtyEight blog, which prides itself on using "statistical analysis — hard numbers — to tell compelling stories" explains why the early round of figures about Black Friday spending are likely inaccurate and based more on anecdote than hard data.

Learning Opportunities

Producing reliable figures takes work and time, author Ben Casselman wrote.

"It takes the government weeks to produce even preliminary data on sales, jobs or other major economic indicators, and those numbers are revised as more complete information becomes available."

Earlier statistics are based on a range of less robust methodologies including surveying retailers before the weekend is over to get their sense of sales, he wrote.

Not that these surveys are useless — but they are best relied upon to point to trends, such as online sales continue to outpace brick-and-mortar ones even as millions of people continue to swamp malls the day after Christmas.

So What’s Different About SimilarWeb?

So why get specific with SimilarWeb’s figures? In large part because of the surprisingly huge net is it is able to throw over global online transactions -- as they happen in real time.

Ari Rosenstein, senior director of Corporate Marketing at SimilarWeb explained its methodology to CMSWire in an earlier interview.

The company taps three sources of data for its analysis, he said. 

The first source is the Internet's general infrastructure. "We work with many ISPs buying data from them," Rosenstein said. 

The second source comes via the company online marketing research platform, in which hundreds of millions of people around the world participate. The company has gotten participants, whose data remains anonymous, by offering SimilarWeb's software for free in exchange. 

The third source some from the internal analytics programs of the apps that are being measured. A surprising number — about 100,000 Websites and apps — are willing to share this data for various reasons, Rosenstein said.

The result is that a user can see, for example, which website might be performing better compared to a competing Website.

What it doesn't do, unfortunately, is tell you definitely why the performance is better.

So, any takers for this question? Why did REI et al perform so dramatically better over the weekend?