Did The Affluent Turn Their Back On E-Commerce This Season?

Some of the latest stats pouring in from the 2008 holiday shopping season are raising some interesting trends, including a sharp (not-before-seen) increase in traffic right after December 25, along with a much deeper drop in site visits from those consumers earning more than $150,000/year. Both trends come from the Hitwise post-holiday report, and both could support radically different conclusions. For example, consider the drop in affluent consumer site visits. It's been clear for months that retailers trying to sell goods to higher income consumers have been feeling lukewarm about E-Commerce. So, is a drop in higher income site visitors a result of a cutback in retail attention? Or is it merely that all consumers had to cut back holiday purchases and that those with more money to spend would logically deliver a higher dollar reduction? In other words, a 20 percent reduction in spending for someone who typically spent $150 will hurt revenue a lot less than the identical reduction for someone who might typically spend $600. Still, the reduction in Hitwise's figures was startling, with the December 2008 vs. December 2007 reduction in site visits for those with household incomes of more than $150,000 showing a 12.33 percent drop. That's almost four times the change for any other demographic group. The next largest change was a 3.72 percent increase in spending for those in the $100K-$149.99K segment, then a 1.2 percent increase in $30K-$59.99K, a 1.12 percent increase in $60K-$99.99K and finally a 1.1 percent decline for those in the less-then-$30K household income segment. With these kind of specs, a change of one or two percent—or even 3.72 percent—is virtually meaningless. In identical seasons, all kinds of variables could cause a one or two percent change. But a 12.33 percent drop, that means something. These figures are particularly baffling when comparing the group that tops out at $150K and the one that starts there. To have a full 16 percentage point difference between those two neighboring groups seems unlikely. A January 2 report from ComScore that tracked actual spending came to roughly similar demographic conclusions, but the way it grouped income didn't allow for a distinction between the $60K-$100K, the $100K-$150K and the more than $150K segments. ComScore reported a 13 percent drop for those earning less than $50K, an 8 percent drop for those earning $50K-$100K and a 7 percent increase for those earning more than $100K. Another income-level element of the Hitwise report that is also unusual: It isolated purchases only for luxury retailers, showing December 2008 vs. December 2007 comparisons for those same income groups. It showed a similar pattern at the high end, with a 15.26 percent drop in the more than $150K in income group, a 10.32 percent increase in $100K-$149.99K, a 4.8 percent drop in $60K-$99.99K, a trivial drop in $30K-$59.99K and a 6.59 percent increase in the less than $30K segment. What Do The Numbers Mean? But with Hitwise's numbers, which do not address the dollars spent, it's hard to put the figures into context. After all, one might question how many dollars the less than $30K in income consumers were typically spending in luxury retail. A potentially more telling figure is the sharp uptick in site visits right after December 25. Historically, that's not unusual, with returns and exchanges and gift card usage, not to mention consumers looking for post-season bargains. Indeed, with the rampant rumors that many retailers were facing potential store closings after the season, it's not unreasonable for consumers to have expected steeper-than-usual discounts. But Hitwise found that 2008's site visit figures for post-Christmas bettered even 2007's post-Christmas figures. Also, Hitwise found that, despite the dreadful economic environment, 2008's figures were bad but not outlandish. For example, it found that 2008 was stronger than 2006. "As we examine the daily pattern of visits to our Retail 500 Index for the last three years, we see that for most of the holiday season we trailed 2007 holiday traffic numbers, we consistently beat the 2006 holiday," Hitwise General Manager Bill Tancer wrote in his blog. "However, that pattern changed for the days immediately after Christmas (is 12/26 the New Black Friday?), as 2008 matched the previous year and soundly beat 2006." Site visits do not necessarily translate into sales, and even the number of sales does not necessarily translate into higher dollars. But with retail in as weak a position as it is right now, fewer visits from people with money to spend is a pretty bad place to start.